Preserving The 'Heraldry Of Valor'

March 22, 1995|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Sun Staff Writer

A Stoneleigh couple's fascination with the "heraldry of valor" -- medals, badges and insignia -- dating to their childhood during World War II has turned into a new business supplying custom displays of veterans' awards.

"There is a lot of emotion in this," said Connie McDonnell, 62, a mental health administrator for Baltimore County. "We see this as being such a poignant thing, especially with the 50th anniversary of the end of the war."

Several World War II bulletin boards on the computer Internet contain inquiries from men and women seeking information about their fathers, asking former buddies to call and tell what they know, Mrs. McDonnell said.

"These are people looking for information about their fathers who died in the war. They are hunting for remembrances of the fathers they never knew," she said.

Her husband, William C. McDonnell, 67, said his interest began because he had relatives in the war. He followed war news coverage and used photographs, particularly from National Geographic, to set up displays of medals and ribbons. He joined the Navy himself at age 17, in June 1945, just before the war ended.

Mrs. McDonnell said she spent wartime summers with her grandparents in Wilmington, N.C., a port city. "The war was so pervasive it was overwhelming. It was a war town and every second person was in uniform. I had the best collection of unit patches. I put them in scrapbooks, and I followed the units in the papers."

During 39 years of marriage the couple's mutual interest in military history continued, going back to the Civil War but focusing on World War II.

One of Mr. McDonnell's uncles, William E. Rice of Govans, served in the merchant marine during World War II. "I remembered his stories, and I had kept a log of his trips in the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and on the Murmansk run. About 10 years ago, after his death, I put together a display of his ribbons for his family. His son still has it," Mr. McDonnell said.

At Fort McHenry, Mr. McDonnell met a retired Navy master chief petty officer "who had everything on this table," he said, sweeping his hand over the frames of medals filling the dining room table. "I made a display for him and swapped it for two Navy shirts, which I don't have any more."

His first commercial effort was a display of the ribbons earned by a Greater Baltimore Committee colleague, former Navy Lt. Jeremiah D. O'Leary, who now lives in Rehoboth, Del.

"I sold it to him for $25 in 1993," said Mr. McDonnell, who is executive director of the Transportation Action Partnership of Baltimore County, a group working to extend light rail service to Hunt Valley.

The McDonnells spent two years after that studying potential competition in the military-award business, checking catalogs and ordering merchandise. Some of the material was decidedly second-rate, if not shoddy, Mrs. McDonnell said.

Deciding to carve out their own niche, the couple founded Call to Colors Inc. -- a custom service of heirloom-quality framing, backing and display.

The McDonnells also offer a research service through a genealogist in St. Louis, home of the National Personnel Center where military records are stored. The genealogist can obtain records for veterans who don't know the awards to which they are entitled. Records also can be gotten for families of veterans wanting to create a memorial but not knowing what it should contain.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 16.1 million men and women served in the armed forces in World War II; 8.1 million still were alive in July 1993, and 6.2 million of them were between 60 and 74 years old.

"There's a great need for families to have a record of their veterans' duty to their country written down somewhere. Not just World War II. The same thing applies to Vietnam and will be true for Desert Storm as well. We must capture our family history before it disappears," Mrs. McDonnell said.

To emphasize this, she shows two frames of medals and insignia the couple recently assembled on their dining room table.

One is for the late 2nd Lt. Harry R. Noel, Mr. McDonnell's stepfather, who was an Army engineer in World War I. The other is for the late Staff Sgt. Philip A. Belli, their son-in-law's father, who fought in the Philippines in World War II.

The couple can assemble displays for every conflict in which Americans have fought from the Civil War to the Indian Wars, the Boxer Rebellion, the Spanish-American War, both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf war.

For some displays, the veterans or their families have produced the original medals. But in other cases, the McDonnells have had to obtain duplicates.

Recent changes in the law permit open sale of U.S. military medals -- except the Medal of Honor -- and the McDonnells have established several sources of supply for medals, badges and unit patches.

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