Former Rome airman, 92, continues mission to honor vets
ROME — Even after more than 70 years, former airman Thomas Kenealy Sr. can still remember when he first arrived in Rome.
“I got off the bus in 1952. It was on a Sunday morning, downtown. The old Fort Stanwix Hotel was there then, and that’s where the bus stop was,” Kenealy, now age 92, recalled in a recent interview with the Daily Sentinel.
Kenealy had completed basic training for the U.S. Air Force and had been assigned administrative duties at the former Griffiss Air Force Base at the height of the Korean War.
“I had to” join the service, Kenealy said with a chuckle. “Uncle Sam said, ‘come on’.”
After stepping off the bus, Kenealy said he looked across the street and saw a “sheet of ice” on the side of an old, burned-down restaurant near present-day George Street and Erie Boulevard. “I thought that was a nice welcome. It looked like a glacier coming down the window,” Kenealy laughed at the memory. “I took a taxi and reported in, and that was about it.”
And just like that, the Massachusetts native had found his new home.
Uncle Sam had brought him to Rome, but life and family caused him to stay. Since then, Kenealy has been a force for good in the city of Rome, dedicating his life to honoring the memories of Rome’s veterans and those who gave their lives in the service.
“We don’t want to forget our veterans, never,” he said. “They gave up all their lives, their time.”
Kenealy spent his four years with the Air Force in Rome, and while he said it was “good duty,” his family said that position has always weighed on him.
“He always feels there were a lot of other servicemen that took a lot more risks than he did. The potential was there, obviously, that he could be called, but he didn’t,” said daughter Kathleen Farrar.
“He always thought about the ones who did, and he wants to make sure that they are always thought about.”
Kenealy had five children with his wife Mary Anne, whom he married while still in the service, and they settled in Rome. He now has 17 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren. Kenealy worked 34 years for the Gerber baby food company after leaving the Air Force, and then nearly another two decades renting cars before finally retiring for good in the 2000s to help take care of his wife. Mary Anne passed in 2012.
Kenealy is a former commander of the Henry P. Smith Post #24 American Legion in 1978 and 1979. He’s currently an officer with the Rome Veteran’s Association and the Rome Memorial Day Association.
Every year, even at age 92, Kenealy helps post American flags at veteran graves in Rome, and he’s been instrumental in recycling those flags into impressive displays along North James Street on Flag Day in June. The Smith Post buys new flags for the graves each year to stand between Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day.
After the flags come down in the fall, Kenealy and the Legion pick out the ones that are still in good condition and they save for them Flag Day the following year. This will be the ninth year Kenealy and the volunteers post the flags up and down North James Street.
“Some of the flags are pretty good flags, they’re still in good shape. So why not use Flag Day to put them out again?” Kenealy said about developing the idea. He said they’ve posted more than 30,000 flags over the years.
“It’s a lot of work, it’s a lot of hours. People are dedicated to doing it. We’ve got to keep it going for the kids, their families.”
Over his long years honoring veterans, Kenealy was on the committee to bring the B-52 bomber to the city. He said the Smith Post Legion is always happy to receive donations to help in maintain the bomber, and checks can be mailed to the Smith Post at 325 Erie Blvd. West, Rome.
Kenealy helped design and erect the archway at Veteran’s Memorial Park on North James Street, despite cutting through his fair share of red tape. He’s still helping to build and revitalize memorials at the park. Kenealy said there are new memorials being engraved “as we speak” with the names of Rome’s veterans. The City of Rome hopes to complete the park renovations by Veteran’s Day this year.
Kenealy was also instrumental in honoring the Canadian servicemen who have worked at Griffiss over the decades. In 2005, The City of Rome became the first U.S. city to be presented a Canadian flag by the Canadian Forces, a flag that still flies over Rome City Hall to this day.
One of Kenealy’s biggest contributions has been the Memorial Day service each year at Veteran’s Memorial Park. Kenealy has always taken part in the ceremony, and at one point he used to read the names of all those lost — at least until “my computer crashed and I lost a lot of names. It’s a shame.”
Those names will now go on the new permanent memorials for the park. Kenealy and the Smith Post will host another Memorial Day service this Monday morning, with the public invited to attend.
“Hopefully people remember what we’re doing to help honor our veterans and will be at the park on Memorial Day to help us celebrate,” he said.
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