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Docents lauded as 'lifeblood and treasure' of Buffalo naval park

Richard Arendt relives his wartime memories every time he guides visitors on naval ship tours.

The 85-year-old Korean War veteran is a docent at the Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park at Canalside.

He was one of 30 docents honored Saturday with the Organization Award at the 7th Annual Louis R. Palma Veterans Appreciation Tribute Awards Ceremony at the Naval Park.

“I’ve been a docent for 15 years now, and it’s something that I am very proud of doing,” he said. “And my favorite part is giving tours to kids, especially when they ask funny questions.”

Docents, who dress in a blue uniform with a cap patched with military pins in honor of their service, are volunteers who lead visitors on tours of the decommissioned USS The Sullivans, a destroyer; the USS Little Rock, a guided missile cruiser; and the USS Croaker, a World War II submarine.

For veterans, becoming a docent is an ideal way to inform people about the history of the ships and the service and sacrifice from those who served aboard them. They said they were honored to receive the award.

“Everyone working at the Naval Park is like a one big family, and you get to meet people from all over the world," Arendt said.

Docents play an important role in enhancing the visitors' experience and telling them real veteran stories, said Laura A. Zaepfel, a member of the Naval Park's board of directors. 

“Docents are truly the lifeblood and treasure of this organization,” she said. “And although we thank them all the time, as a board this award was a way to show them our true appreciation.”

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It takes around three to four months to train a docent, said Bob D. McFarland, the chief docent.

Docents must read through a training manual, become familiar with the tour routes and shadow four tours conducted by trained docents, he said.

Although McFarland did not serve in the military, he said he learns about the war by hearing stories from veteran visitors and other docents.

Al Barber attended Saturday's ceremony as a surprise visitor. He served aboard the USS The Sullivans, a 376-foot-long ship that served in World War II, the Korean War and other missions.

“The experience has been wonderful, I get to meet and hear stories from so many people,” McFarland said. “For example, I was able to met Al Barber and hear his stories through this job.”

Pat Conner, a naval veteran during the Vietnam War era, said it is always a rewarding experience to provide tours for veteran visitors and see their faces light up as they reminisce about their wartime days.

“Everyday is a wonderful day, especially because I get the chance to take those veterans who served on the ship and take them to their old duty stations,” he said.

Conner said the park brings people from all over the world together and allows them to connect through the history of the ships. 

“Docents are like the heart of the park,” he said. “We help visitors feel like they have somehow connected with the past when they leave the park.”

In addition to the Organization Award, the Naval Park bestowed the Individual Award to John J. Gruber, a World War II veteran who served as a judge for the Town of Tonawanda.

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