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Ex-soldier saluted on history project

YOUNGSTOWN -- A Pennsylvania native who spent part of his military career stationed at Fort Niagara has been recognized for helping to bring to life the area's military history in Fort Niagara State Park.

Donald J. Gibbons recently received a formal "thank you" from the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation for hundreds of hours of volunteer work to benefit the park.

Gibbons, an Army veteran who made Youngstown his stomping grounds for part of the 1950s, was born in the small coal town of Throop, Pa., near Scranton.

He served on active duty in the National Guard and the Army from 1950 to 1957. He was stationed at Fort Niagara for 2 1/2 years starting in March 1955.

He retired from the private sector in 1989 and has two children and one grandchild.

Gibbons, who summers in Niagara County, helped develop 21 interpretive signs in the park since his work began in 2005.

Gibbons recently sat down with The Buffalo News to talk about his achievement.

>What got you started volunteering at the park?

I asked [Fort Niagara park manager] Dave [Clark] if he had some administrative work he'd like some help on. . . . He said he does have a project. . . . [Because] so many people asked him where the roads were and who they were named after, he wanted to [develop these signs, continuing the efforts of an Eagle Scout project led by Patrick Bullis of Lewiston].

. . . In 1941, the streets were named by the post commander. There were a few newspaper articles that Dave found that gave a brief synopsis of who these people were. They all happened to be the heroes of the War of 1812. So knowing the names of the people, now it was a question of what they did. . . . They were heroes, or they died in the War of 1812. The object was to capture what they did from a military standpoint. . .

>Was there anything you learned while doing this that piqued your interest?

I knew a little bit about the War of 1812, very little. But I didn't know the characters. I didn't know that [Gen.] Winfield Scott played a big part in several of the campaigns here.

I didn't know the sequence of our invasion of Canada, both in Detroit and here, up along the St. Lawrence River and Lake Champlain. I didn't know we failed in many places, but I also didn't know that we succeeded. Just the challenge of understanding how everything fits in, how these people fit in, it was all new.

I'm a, I guess you'd call it a military history buff. Civil War, World War I, World War II. The War of 1812 was a little foreign to me.

>When you say you're a buff. . .

I read. My wife and I have visited practically every Civil War battlefield on the East Coast. I drag her to military museums when I can. We haven't gotten to Europe to see any of the battlefields there. But it's primarily reading.

>What made you interested in it?

It's hard to say. A little bit from the people I met in the service. . . I was living and working with people that just came back from World War II. They had a chest full of ribbons . . and the conversations we had were very interesting.

And as the books came out, [by generals] Eisenhower, Bradley, Patton, and so on, there was always a discussion about them. And it just kind of drew me in.

>What are some of those things that those soldiers who came back from World War II, what did they tell you? What kinds of things did you learn from them?

We talked more about tactics and strategy. They didn't talk about the battles or what they did. One or two would explain something. They were quiet on that, just like most veterans were. They were career soldiers. They did their bit, put up with it, came back and did something else. And they were good men, too. . .

>What was it that made you want to do this at the fort?

First of all, you have to give something back. That's a known. And I come into this nice little community of Youngstown, you ask yourself what can you do. I have time on my hands, I'm retired. . . . Everything that I've done has kind of had a historical bent.

I really want to be a history teacher, and I'm now a frustrated historian. . . .

>What was Youngstown like when you were stationed here at the fort? How was it different from today?

This [Ashker's Coffee House] was a meat market. . . . Over in the corner was a little candy shop and newspaper. Haskell's hardware store was like something out of the past. I would go in there looking for screws, and it was amazing the things there.

There was a grocery store or two, a couple of restaurants. Very busy. . . . I think they had a civic guild here, they had garden clubs. The military was all over the place, I mean they helped out.

So it was very interesting, it felt very much like home. . .

>What did you think about getting this certificate of recognition from the state parks office?

I'll tell you it was extremely nice of them. I didn't expect it, I didn't look for it. The thanks that I got from Dave Clark and [Western District Director] Mark Thomas was enough for me. But they did a very nice thing. It was nice that they included [park employee] Jim Gifford. He did a lot of the work. . .

>Do you have any future volunteer work planned?

We have to finish the cemetery. Dave showed that to me when I first met him, and I volunteered to clean it up. . . . Over on Lake Road, it used to be the New Post Cemetery. . . . In 1948 they moved all the bodies to Elmira. . . . It was just all overgrown. I cleared it out over two summers. And that enabled Dave to bring in larger equipment.

. . . Dave wants to have it as a quiet place for reflection. Put some benches in there. We put some words together, and there's a sign on that, too, explaining what it was, kind of dedicate it to the servicemen that passed through there. . . .

>What do you think about the way this country remembers and honors its veterans?

That's a hard one. I think you have a majority of people that appreciate them and understand what they do. I think you have small groups that are probably more vocal and that are negative.

. . . With the change . . . involving National Guard and Reserve units on a grand scale, I don't think everything has been thought through to take care of veterans when they come back. . .

I would like to see more enthusiasm for what our troops do and what our country does. The only thing I really do not understand how people say that they support our troops, but they don't support the war. I don't see how they can say that. If you don't support the war, how could you support the troops?

e-mail: abesecker@buffnews.com

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