Veteran unveils memorials as tribute to soldiers and receives a tribute of his own
By THERESA COTTOM | The Akron Beacon Journal | Published: November 13, 2017
CLINTON, Ohio (Tribune News Service) -- Johnnie Downs' black cavalry hat dipped over his eyes as he bowed his head in prayer at the Ohio Veterans' Memorial Park on Sunday.
The Army veteran thought he was at the park for a tribute to the latest three memorials he recently dedicated. Little did he know that a tribute for him was also in the works.
Downs, members of the Ohio Veterans' Memorial Park (OVMP), Clinton Mayor Allen Knack and other veterans gathered at the park as Downs revealed memorials he funded in honor of African-American soldiers.
Against a backdrop of a military helicopter, a tank and other tokens of war, Downs pulled a black drape off three stone mounds that will join the "history walk" portion of the park.
One was for the Tuskegee Airmen, the first black servicemen to serve as military aviators in the U.S. armed forces, which they did during World War II. Another was for the 2nd Ranger Infantry Company (Airborne), the only all-black ranger company of the Korean War. The third was for Dan Bullock, the youngest Marine to die in the Vietnam War, at age 15.
Downs said he did so to preserve their legacy and honor men who have previously gone unrecognized.
"Sometimes, you want to see the unsung heroes get the credit they deserve," Downs said.
The members of OVMP wanted to make sure Downs received the same.
After Downs unveiled the memorials, people from OVMP called Downs up to the podium for his own surprise honor.
The staff at OVMP got to know Downs soon after the park opened in 2007 as not only a donor, but also a frequent visitor and a friend.
Downs has funded numerous memorials at the park, including a bench that outlines his family's extensive military history.
Downs, 71, entered the Army when he was 19. He served through the Vietnam War, Desert Storm, the Cold War and the war on terrorism. He worked in the military academy as a drill sergeant for 13 years and retired in 2006 as a sergeant first class.
On Downs' memorial bench, family photos stand out among a constellation of his military decorations.
One photo is of his mother, Audrey Downs, with a caption that says, "All that I am or ever hope to be, I owe to the prayers of my beautiful mother."
He also has photos of his son, brother and father, all of whom died from the lingering effects of war: one from suicide, one from exposure to the chemical Agent Orange and one from sustained injuries.
Downs initially approached Ken Noon, the president of OVMP and designer of all the memorials, with his ideas for the three new memorials.
After the OVMP board approved them, Noon and Mayor Knack, who is a frequent visitor at the park, decided they wanted to honor Downs when Noon finished the memorials.
"We're just really proud of Johnnie for all of his accomplishments," Noon said.
"All around the country people are taking down monuments, and this man's paying to have them erected," Knack said. "He's just that humble."
Once Downs unveiled the memorials Sunday, speakers continued with sentimental messages -- not about the memorials, but about Downs.
"I wish you could go to school every day and learn to be like Johnnie," Knack said.
Then, they called him to the podium to present him with an Ohio-shaped plaque in his honor and a pocket watch.
Downs held back tears as he accepted his awards, shaking each person's hand with a small smile.
As it turns out, he had a surprise of his own.
No sooner did Downs receive his award than he was presenting Knack with a surprise GOAL award -- "greatest of all time."
Downs said after the Vietnam War, he got to go to the Olympics and meet Muhammad Ali, who told him that someone will always be the best.
"You're the best mayor I've ever met," Downs said.
After the crowd gave Downs a standing ovation, many of its 100 members waited in line to shake Downs' hand and thank him for his service.
Downs' years in the military had a lingering effect on him, just as they had on his family and thousands of other veterans.
He said that going to the park several days a week is a way he manages his post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
"There's peace out here. It's great therapy for me," he said.
But service also left him with a legacy, he said -- something his children can look back on and see that he's accomplished. It's the reason he served 32 years.
Downs said he doesn't know how many military honors and decorations he's received.
"But I do know the best one I ever got," Downs said. "It was when my mother told me I was a good son."
The pocket watch he received Sunday has also taken a special place in his heart.
Downs said he's already arranged his funeral. When the day comes, he said, the watch will be with him.
"If you don't prepare yourself to be put away, they're going to throw you away," Downs said. "This watch that they gave me, it will be with me forever. I will always carry it."
(c) 2017 the Akron Beacon Journal. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.