CEDAR RAPIDS — Two veterans, a fire chief and a late school board member have been chosen as this year’s Freedom Festival Heroes for their service to their communities.
Ron Dirks, Albert Etzel, Mike Sankot and Keith Westercamp will be honored at the Tribute to Heroes Dinner at 6 p.m. Thursday at The Hotel at Kirkwood Center, 7725 Kirkwood Blvd. SW. Chad Hennings, Benton Community graduate, Air Force veteran and retired Dallas Cowboys player, will be the night’s keynote speaker.
When Vietnam veteran Ron Dirks first heard about the award on April 1, he thought it was an April Fools’ prank. He doesn’t view himself as a hero, but there are plenty of people who would say otherwise.
Dirks has worked 400 funerals with the American Legion, traveled everywhere from Colorado to Virginia to help the Vietnam Moving Wall and spoken to seven church groups about how his faith saved his life in Vietnam and acted as a turning point in his recovery at home in Marion.
He “really got hooked” helping the Vietnam Moving Wall, a replica of the Vietnam Memorial visiting different cities, at 40 showings, often comforting families of fallen soldiers. One encounter with the mother of a fallen soldier still stands out about a year after his mother passed away.
“She turned around and said, ‘I never got to hug him one last time,’” Dirks said. “I said, ‘Well, I was with my mother when she died, and I didn’t take the time to hug her. ... I’ll stand in for your son if you stand in for my mother.’”
He has four grandchildren. When Dirks visits their school on Veterans Day, he gets about 400 high-fives — a hero’s welcome.
As Albert Etzel, 93, grabbed a photo album with “WWII” written on it and opened it up, the tears started to roll down his face as if the war was yesterday. As he pages through pictures from fighting in the South Pacific, he points to people he would consider the real heroes.
He has quite the heroic resume himself, though. Etzel won the Bronze Star twice and made three beachside landings while serving in the war.
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After the war, Etzel helped in the kitchen at the American Legion for 65 years. If there was a dinner or event, he’d be there helping out. He spent 20 years working for the city of Marion as well.
He’s a former commander of the American Legion post in Marion but repeatedly said he didn’t do anything special to earn hero status.
It’s harder for him to make it back to the Legion post with his age — he said jokingly he’s 93 going on 100 — but still tries to make it for every fish fry or dinner.
Mike Sankot has been the Fairfax Fire Department’s fire chief for 25 years, but he doesn’t volunteer to be recognized.
“I’m not in it for the glory, but I appreciate it,” he said about being one of this year’s heroes.
Sankot, co-owner of Sankot’s Garage, also was named as last year’s American Legion Firefighter of the Year for the Midwest region.
He has had a hand in the department’s junior firefighter program, where he’s served as a mentor for participants throughout the years.
One of the first junior firefighters to go through the program in the 1990s became a career fireman in Alaska, he said, and another joined the Cedar Rapids department last year. One year, five women took part in the program.
Part of the hope with the junior program is to keep kids in the area and volunteering with the fire department, Sankot said. Currently, the Fairfax department has about 50 total members. After working all day at their day jobs, Sankot said, volunteers have to be ready to go on call at a moment’s notice. Last year, he said the department responded to around 250 calls.
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“You have to like your community and love your community to do what you do,” he said.
Keith Westercamp, the first posthumous Freedom Festival hero, was the type of man who would do anything needed of him.
“He wanted to help people do better and help give people a better life,” said Barb Westercamp, Keith’s wife. “When he took a commitment, his word was his bond.”
He was the founder of Appraisal Associates and served on the Cedar Rapids school board for 20 years, devoting a lot of time and money into bettering the district. Barb Westercamp estimates that she and her husband have spent $3,000 a year on books and materials for schools in the area. She noted Keith believed that “a book is a treasure you can open again and again.”
In his youth, Westercamp attended one of the last one-room schoolhouses in Iowa. He brought those experiences into his wife’s Taylor Elementary School classroom, teaching kids how to churn butter and hand-crank ice cream. He once even brought in a live calf.
Since his passing on Feb. 20, Barb said she’s received nearly 500 messages from people who wanted to share how much Keith impacted their lives.
“(With Keith’s nomination), other people can see the hero in every one,” she said. “What helps people is the everyday things, not just one big thing. ... He was just such a giving person.”
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