They didn't know him, but he was a veteran, so they sent him off with honors

By CHRISTINE BYERS | St. Louis Post-Dispatch | Published: August 9, 2017

ST. LOUIS (Tribune News Service) — More than 50 motorcycle riders and dozens of others lined up Tuesday outside the Michel Funeral Home in St. Louis to say goodbye to a man almost none of them knew.

But they knew he was a veteran.

And, on Tuesday, that was all that mattered — not the demons he faced after returning from the Vietnam War, or the circumstances that ultimately led to the separation from his wife of 17 years and homelessness he faced for most of his last year on Earth.

Dozens of people, including children from day care centers, lined the procession route for John Beard, 67, who died July 23 after a two-month battle with cancer that had spread to his lungs, bones and brain before he ever knew he had it. Some got out of their cars to hold their hand over their hearts, salute, or stand at attention as the procession rumbled southbound along Hampton Avenue and on through south St. Louis County to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery.

Beard’s widow, Betty Beard, wiped tears from her eyes upon seeing all of the support. She said Beard was exposed to Agent Orange during his service in the Air Force, which she believes caused his cancer.

The couple had been estranged for almost a year when he called her to tell her the news of his cancer.

The diagnosis came on the same day that AMVETS secured medical benefits for a separate service-connected injury, said Rich Hogan, a national service officer for the organization who, along with Jacqueline Ingoldsby, a veteran service officer, oversaw his case. At the time, Beard was a member of the Homeless Veterans program, living at Jefferson Barracks.

Hogan organized a “Celebration of Life” banquet for Beard to also raise money for funeral expenses. The venue, Tenbrook Tavern, donated its space. There, local funeral directors Calvin and Chris Whitaker met Beard and volunteered to host his funeral for free. All the money raised at the banquet went back to the Veterans in Need program, which works to prevent veterans from becoming homeless.

The Whitakers met with Beard to make final arrangements twice before he died. He asked that Frank Sinatra music be played during the visitation. And for military honors at the funeral.

Hogan said when he and Beard spoke in the final months of his life, he would often give a thumbs-up to show his approval and appreciation when words became too hard to find or too difficult to speak — a gesture his widow said he was still giving during the six days he spent back in his home before he died.

Betty Beard rode on the back of Hogan’s Harley-Davidson during the procession — something she was somewhat reluctant to do given her inexperience with motorcycles.

But being out in the open gave her a chance to give everyone lining the route a clearly visible thumbs-up.

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