Memorial Day is when we honor those who wore a uniform and died defending our country. But here was Leroy Tonic, very much alive Friday afternoon at the District Building, the guest of honor in a ceremony thanking him for his service during wartime.
When that war was World War II and that person is 95 years old, it’s best not to wait six months for Veterans Day.
“We’re giving you an honor today,” said Tonic’s grandson Haleem Tonic.
“Good,” said Leroy Tonic, who is healthy in body but whose mind, alas, is clouded by Alzheimer’s.
The ceremony came about because Tonic’s name is one of more than 1,800 painted in gold on a large black glass plaque that for years mystified people who passed it in the John A. Wilson Building. The plaque was broken during a renovation and stored in a closet. Along the way, it lost the topmost panel explaining what it was for.
Three years ago, Josh Gibson, public information officer for the D.C. Council, solved the mystery: These were people who worked for the D.C. government and served in the military during World War II.
Gibson wasn’t content to let it go at that. He began researching individual names. Most of his efforts ended in an obituary. Tonic’s did, too. But he was always listed as a survivor, not the deceased, and Gibson was able to track down his family.
“[Josh] called me, and I said, ‘Oh no!’ I didn’t know about that,” said Tonic’s daughter Bernadette Barnett.
Gibson wasn’t able to determine what Tonic did while working for the D.C. government — he left its employ after the war — but he tracked down the service record of the veteran, who lives in a nursing home in Hyattsville, Md.
Tonic was living at 1328 Eighth St. NW in January 1944, when he was drafted into the Navy. After boot camp at Naval Station Great Lakes in Illinois, he served at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, as well as at two training facilities in Washington state: Naval Air Station Whidbey Island and Naval Air Station Pasco. He was not deployed overseas. He attained the rank of Seaman First Class and was honorably discharged after serving two years, three months and 22 days.
“He never talked about the past,” said grandson Haleem Tonic.
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson pointed out that the seeds for Memorial Day were planted right here in Washington by a man named Norton Parker Chipman . Chipman was an Ohio-born attorney working in Iowa when the Civil War began. He enlisted as a private in Company H, 2nd Iowa Infantry, and by the end of the war had risen to the rank of brigadier general. Chipman had caught the eye of another Ohioan: Ulysses S. Grant.
Chipman was judge advocate of the military commission that prosecuted Henry Wirz, commandant of Andersonville, the infamous Confederate prisoner-of-war camp in Georgia.
After the war, Chipman settled in Washington and became active in the Grand Army of the Republic, a national organization of Union Army veterans. It was Chipman who convinced the group’s commander in chief, Gen. John A. Logan, that the custom of adorning the graves of Civil War soldiers with flowers be adopted.
Logan signed an order that Chipman had written designating May 30, 1868, as a day for “strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in the defense of their country during the late rebellion.”
From this “Decoration Day” was born our modern Memorial Day.
Chipman was important to Washington in another way: In 1871 he became the District’s first congressional delegate, then as now a nonvoting position. Mendelson pointed out that Washingtonians are still asked to risk their lives in the military without full representation in Congress.
As Leroy Tonic’s family watched — grandson Haleem, daughters Bernadette Barnett and Taenia Tonic, son Leroy Tonic Jr. — Mendelson presented the elderly man with an American flag that had flown over the District Building and thanked him for his service.
“You’re the man of the hour,” Taenia Tonic said.
Leroy Tonic’s eyes grew moist.
“You’re shedding those tears already,” said Haleem.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.