Friday morning after a doctor’s appointment, Hays High School senior Levi Hickert stopped at the American Legion’s Veterans Memorial Park at Canterbury and 13th streets. It was time for government class, but Hickert was at the park to put the finishing touch on his months-long project to fix up and replace nearly four dozen brass memorial plaques.
After riveting up the last plaque on Friday, Hickert was happy to linger, talking about the work he put into the project, one thing leading to another from when he started earlier this fall, until not only had he replaced the weathered, unreadable plaques, but also freshly painted the park’s concrete benches and a well house.
“My goal with this project was to make it a place where people want to go, like on a Sunday afternoon, and actually picnic,” Hickert said, looking at the small park with its sprinkling of trees, park benches, a circle of flag poles, a miniature replica of the Washington Monument, a Korea-Vietnam M-60 A1 tank, and the Kansas 40&8 World War I Merci Box Car Museum.
“You have all this open space, and you’ve got benches everywhere, and you could take your kids out with a frisbee, or a baseball and glove and play catch, and have a nice lunch after church,” Hickert said.
Seeing the park might inspire visitors to pitch in, like it did him, he said.
“Then maybe more people will step up and do some of the work,” he said. “I’m really proud of it. It wasn’t much, but it was honest work, so I’m really happy with it.”
Hickert got involved after the Casper J. Middlekauff American Legion Post 173 in Hays sponsored him to attend the legion’s Boys State in Manhattan this past summer, participating in exercises designed to educate juniors in high school about state government.
“It just shows you the whole system, like going through and passing laws, proposing bills, getting everything to work for everyone in the state,” Hickert said. “But it’s also just a whole bunch of 17-year-old junior guys, so we also know how to have fun with it. So we’d just kind of pass silly bills, like you have to wear whatever on Tuesdays.”
When Hickert returned to Hays, he wanted to do something for the legion. His first thought was to paint the tank in Veterans Memorial Park, but he quickly realized that was too big a job.
Then he noticed the plaques, 45 of them, 39 of them riveted to flag poles and six attached to poured concrete benches, but every one of them bearing the name of a veteran.
“These plaques used to be brass and rotary engraved,” explained Hickert, touching his finger to one of the plaques.
“You take a chisel and you go through the metal, and with brass it oxidizes really heavily. As I was walking through the park one day, I couldn’t even read some of the plaques. They were just horribly blackened and all you could really see was the little indentions,” Hickert explained.
He and his mom, Sandra, did a little research and developed a plan. He went before the legion’s members to suggest fixing the plaques, volunteering his labor and $150 toward the cost of materials.
“I was so nervous just even to go to the American Legion, I didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “Would they be like ‘You’re just 17 - what would you do?’”
Hickert told them he’d put down $150 of his own money. But the Legion members told him to keep it, and instead split it with the Hays Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 9076 to give him $500.
Several businesses offered help, including Fastenal, 1110 E. 13th, which sold him rivets and a rivet gun at a deep discount, Paul Gottschalk owner of Hays Trophies & Engraving, 217 W. 10th, and Commercial Sign Co., 720 E. 7th St. There was also Ray Palmer, at the Legion, and Stan Dreiling, Lewis Automotive Group.
But the driving force was Hickert, who said his patriotism is instilled in him in part from his grandfather Fred Hickert, originally from the Jennings area but now living in Hays. The elder Hickert served in the Army Reserve in the 1950s and ‘60s.
The American Legion, with about 160 members, established the veterans park more than a decade ago, and normally holds its Memorial Day services there, according to Brian Roe, Legion Post 173 commander.
Normally the kids who come to do a project for the Legion are Boys Scouts or Girls Scouts wanting to fulfill a scouting requirement and earn a badge or to win the Eagle Scout Award, Roe said.
“I was really impressed with him,” he said of Hickert. “It was really commendable on his part. He had a plan and explained everything to us. All the membership was really drawn to the idea.”
To take the plaques down, Hickert drilled out the rivets with some help from his dad, Kevin. Then the new plaques went up, laser engraved on weatherproof aluminum. While working on the bench plaques, Hickert noticed the benches in disrepair, and so got paint from the city of Hays Parks Department.
“We’re failing as a community allowing these plaques to weather away and allow these people’s names to be forgotten,” he said, “so that’s really what kind of jump-started it.”
When Hickert graduates, he plans to attend FHSU for two years, then go to Kansas State University to earn a degree in mechanical engineering and eventually work for a defense contractor designing equipment for the military.
But on Friday he was thinking about how it would be nice to plant rose bushes and poppies in the park.
The Legion’s Palmer, who stopped by the park on Friday to look at repairs on some spotlights broken by vandalism, reminded Hickert that his goal had been to have the project completed by Veteran’s Day.
“You made it,” Palmer said. “With two days to spare.”
Family members can retrieve the old brass plaques that were removed, from Palmer by calling him at 785-650-2999.
“I thought it was really great,” said the Legion’s Roe of Hickert’s effort. “It’s nice to have someone within the community come. We were more than happy to support him.”