Veterans: The Lifeblood of Our Main Streets


Our veterans in Main Street tirelessly serve as board members, managers, committee chairs, and volunteers in their local communities. This Veterans Day, we’d like to honor our servicemen and women all over the country by profiling a few veterans who have done great work in Main Street.
Ken Harmon has led the Main Street program in Bennettsville, South Carolina, for over 17 years. In the 1950s, Ken enlisted in the United States Army, went to cryptography school, and was sent to Germany for 18 months as a cryptographer for the United States Army V Corps. When Ken left service and returned to Bennettsville, he went into the radio broadcasting business. In 1986, his mother was one of the founding members of the Bennettsville Downtown Development Association, and he soon joined up as well. Ken is a much respected local leader, and one of the recent projects he has helmed is the façade renovation of 98 buildings in Bennettsville’s historic downtown. Completed five years ago, this was a three-year project that restored the building façades facades to their original states. When asked whether his military service has helped in his Main Street work, Ken said, “It has helped me. It taught me to get along with people, to see others for what they really are, to take and obey orders for the benefit of the group.”

In Historic Downtown Liberty, Missouri, Gordon Hadden has been co-chair of the Economic Restructuring Committee for the past two and a half years, and became a board member just this past year. Gordon was drafted into the United States Army after graduating from the University of Arizona in 1964. His Military Occupational Specialty was communications. He served for two years in California and Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Gordon’s love for historic preservation began in the old historic towns of Arizona. When he and his wife first moved to Liberty in 1971, they bought a historic Victorian house and fixed it up to live in. In 1997, they purchased a brick Georgian Revival building which had been a fraternity house for William Jewell College before it was damaged by fire, and renovated it too. With this strong interest in historic preservation, it is no wonder that they got involved when Liberty started its Main Street program in 2005. As Gordon put it, “[Historic preservation] is like drinking Kool-Aid, once you do it you can’t help but carry on doing it.”

With his wife becoming the first executive director of Liberty’s Main Street program, Gordon joined the Economic Improvement Team. One of his recent efforts was helping to get the Missouri 353 Property Tax Exemption Program passed, allowing the city to declare a blighted area and to administer tax exemptions to properties in that area, providing an incentives for developers. Gordon received an award etc etc. “Gordon is tireless in his dedication to Main Street,” says Vicki Vance, the current executive director of Downtown Liberty. “He does everything quickly and efficiently, and there’s always a lot of humor involved. He makes everything look like fun.”

Then there’s Gene Davidson of Hart, Michigan, who was awarded Hart Main Street’s Volunteer of the Year Award in 2011. Gene served in the Army’s Intelligence Service after graduating from high school in the 1940s. Krista Dornfried, manager of Hart Main Street, testified that “Gene is truly an amazing volunteer and dedicated community member. I don’t think our program would be what it is today without Gene, he got us up and running.”

Gene has been involved with Hart Main Street from the very beginning, and built a conference table of pure Michigan white oak for the organization, as well as coat racks, desk extensions, cabinets, and other office essentials, with his own two hands. 

As a member of the Design Committee, Gene with a graphic designer to design wayfinding signs for the town's bike trail and build rack card holders to be installed next to them. Hart now has four large wayfinding signs and five rack card holders along the Hart Montegue Rail Trail leading into downtown. Recently, Gene has been working on the Hart Commons project, a new downtown park. Apart from working with the project engineers, Gene and members of the Pentwaller Artisan Center also hand-carved the large “Hart Commons” sign that marks the entrance into the park. At the moment, Gene is working on a “Welcome to Hart”sign for the entry point of town, ensuring that the first thing you see when you enter Hart is his hard work and dedication.

Marshalltown’s Adopt-a-Veteran Program

When veterans are in need themselves, our Main Street programs step in to fill the gap. When Gayle Hellberg first learned about the Main Street program in Marshalltown, Iowa, what resonated with her was how the Main Street Approach emphasized the need to do good for the community. At the time, she drove past the Iowa Veteran’s Home, one of the three largest state-owned facilities for veterans in the nation, on her way to work at her jewelry store every day, and thought it would be a great place to start. At the commandant’s office, she was told that while the Home had close to 700 residents, there was a group of veterans who received few or no visits from family members. The Main Street board decided that one of their first initiatives would be to take care of these veterans during the holiday season.

Through its Adopt-a-Veteran program, Marshalltown Main Street contacts the Iowa Veteran’s Home every October and collects two gift requests each from qualified residents. These range from shirts, coats, books and, occasionally, even laptops or cases of soda. The requests are labeled onto red, white, and blue stars that are hung from Christmas trees in eight downtown businesses. Shoppers select a gift they are willing to purchase, and then shop for it in stores downtown. According to Gayle, since the program started 10 years ago, no gift request has gone unfulfilled. In addition to this, colorful containers for monetary donations are also placed in businesses all over Main Street.

During the holiday season, volunteers load all the gifts onto a truck and take them to the home, where they throw a party to honor the veterans and give them their Christmas presents. Townsfolk come over with their kids and grandkids, there’s music, Mr. and Mrs. Claus, cookies, and the residents all have a lot of fun. Gayle told me about how some years ago, the commandant wheeled one resident back to his room after the party, with presents in his lap. He left, and came back a few minutes later to check on him, and the man was still sitting there, with tears rolling down his cheeks. The commandant, concerned, asked him what was wrong. “I can’t believe a total stranger would just give me a gift like this,” the veteran said. “I haven’t received any gifts for eight years.”

Marshalltown’s Adopt-a-Veteran program won Best Retail Activity at last year’s Iowa Main Street Program Awards. The program has met with such success that Marshalltown Main Street has been able to organize a Valentine’s Day party for the veterans at the Iowa Veteran’s Home in the last two years.

Ken Harmon of Bennettsville, South Carolina, closed our interview by telling me, “Salute service people, whether veterans or those on active duty. They are the lifeblood of our country, literally.”

On this Veterans Day, to all of our servicemen and women, Main Street salutes you.