FATHER RICHARD WEGMAN and Joe Santoro with their Honor Flight New England jackets prior to their April 13 trip to Washington, D.C. (Rosemary Stewart photo) (click for larger version)
May 08, 2014WOLFEBORO — Most people who know Father Richard Wegman know him as "Father Dick" of St. Katharine Drexel Church, a Roman Catholic priest beloved by his parishioners.
Less known is the fact that Father Dick was also a veteran of the Korean War long before he became a priest. In recognition of his service, he was one of two Korean veterans chosen by Honor Flight New England to be flown to Washington on April 13 at no cost to tour our national monuments and be honored as a veteran.
All 27 veterans on that flight, 25 of which served in World War II, were each accompanied by a companion and required to be conveyed in a wheelchair so that the less able among them would not be uncomfortable.
Fr. Wegman's companion was longtime Wolfeboro accountant and former selectman Joe Santoro. Santoro had approached him last winter at the Wright Museum and asked him if he wanted to go on an Honor Flight. He then applied on behalf of both of them and they were approved in March.
Honor Flight New England is a non-profit organization founded in the 2009 to honor America's veterans for all of their sacrifices. Through generous donations it transports veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit and reflect at their memorials at no cost to them. According to its website, Honor Flight New England gives highest priority "to the senior veterans – World War II survivors, along with those other veterans who may be terminally ill. Of all of the wars in recent memory, it was World War II that truly threatened our very existence as a nation – and as a culturally diverse, free society. Now, with over one thousand World War II veterans dying each day, our time to express our thanks to these brave men and women is running out."
More and more Korean War veterans like Fr. Wegman are included as the number of living World War II veterans continues to diminish.
Honor Flight New England is affiliated with national Honor Flight. It's first flight was in June 2009. Including the April 13 event there have been 31 flights honoring 934 veterans, including 26 former prisoners of war, 19 sets of brothers and 39 women.
A long, wonderful day
Sunday, April 13 began very early for all those involved. The group assembled at the Manchester airport by 6 a.m. and boarded a Southwest Airlines 737 for the flight to Washington. When they arrived, the veterans and their companions were greeted by a brass band and then taken into Washington on chartered buses with a police escort. They were also given Honor Flight t-shirts and jackets and cameras to record their day as they visited the World War II, Korean War and Vietnam Veterans memorial and other sights along the National Mall.
They were then given dinner in Washington before being taken to the Baltimore-Washington Airport for the return flight to Manchester. At that airport, Santoro reported, a band played the hymns for each branch of the military service. When the Marine Corps Hymn started, one of the veterans, a Marine, asked to be held up so he could salute. There was not a dry eye in the house as people witnessed that act of pride and honor.
Santoro and Wegman did not get back home until 1 a.m. Monday morning. "It was a very moving experience," Santoro says.
Lt. Richard Wegman
Fr. Wegman was born Nov. 3, 1928 in Brooklyn. He received his bachelor's degree from Queens College in 1950 and enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. In June 1951 he was assigned as a second lieutenant to the Fifth Air Force in Korea, serving in the information branch. In September 1952 he returned to the States as a first lieutenant, and in April 1953 he left the Air Force and entered the business world. In May 1957 he formed Hammond Organ Studios in Boston and over the next 30 years he built the business into a seven-location enterprise.
After retiring in May, 1985 he decided to enter the priesthood and was ordained in 1990. From 1990 to 1996 he was Associate Pastor of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Church in Hampton and went on to become Pastor of St. Joan of Arc Church in Alton. Despite retiring in 2001, he remains Assistant to Pastor Robert Cole at St. Katharine Drexel Church, the successor parish serving the greater Alton and Wolfeboro areas.
Speaking for himself about his experience, Fr. Wegman was most grateful for sharing such a wonderful experience, thanks to Honor Flight New England. "I didn't know such a thing existed," he says, adding "I hope I can get the word out to other veterans who may want to take advantage of this generous honor."
Santoro says that Fr. Wegman's wish has already been granted to some degree: since the April 13 trip there have been three other area veterans who have applied to Honor Flight. Both Fr. Wegman and Santoro hope this article inspires many more to apply.
According to Honor Flight New England founder Joe Byron, all flights for 2014 have been filled, but he welcomes new applications. For more information you can call toll-free (877) WW2VETS (that's 877-992-8387) or visit the Honor Flight New England website at honorflightnewengland.org. Donations to support this effort can also be made through the website.