On November 4, about 650 guests gathered at the Fess Parker hotel for Pierre Claeyssens Veterans Foundation’s (PCVF) grand Military Ball. Setting the tone for this jubilant celebration, the hotel entrance was festively adorned with a multitude of American flags and banners and a Bell UH-1 Huey helicopter was parked alongside. During the extended cocktail hour, veterans, many in military attire festooned with copious medals, mingled with active duty members and supporters. About 300 ROTC members, returning veterans at SBCC and UCSB, and enlisted personnel at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Point Magu, and Port Hueneme, attended as guests of the foundation.
In the Grand Ballroom, guests were greeted by PCVF founder and Boardmember LT. John Blankenship (USN, former), who thanked guests for their attendance and shared Pierre Claeyssens’ wish that veterans always be remembered. Master of Ceremonies MSG Jon Parra (U.S. Army, ret.) introduced the Vandenberg Air Force Base Color Guard, which brilliantly presented the colors, then David Gonzales sang the National Anthem. Senior Cadet Dominique Chan (UCSB ROTC Surfrider Battalion), performed the Missing Man Ceremony, eloquently explaining the symbolism of the small, spotlighted, empty table for our missing men.
Guests enjoyed a gourmet three-course meal featuring filet mignon and shrimp. The keynote speaker was Col. Jack Jacobs, an NBC and MSNBC military analyst, Medal of Honor recipient, and holder of three Bronze Stars, two Silver Stars, and two Purple Hearts. He passionately shared his belief that everyone owes this country service and that there is nothing like military service to give young people authority and responsibility at an early age. Jacobs spoke of the need for both employers and military members themselves to recognize that people who serve in uniform can do absolutely anything. He also spoke with conviction on the need for the government to prepare military members, upon leaving the service, for civilian life.
There was a moving Salute to Services, with members of each of the six branches rising for the playing of his or her branch’s song. Blankenship presented the Generations of Service Award to the Di Loreto Family, whom he described as “the great American story.” Venanzio Di Loreto immigrated to the United States in 1912, and between him and his three sons, Silvio Dante Di Loreto, who passed away last year, Aldo Gene Di Loreto, and Lucio (John) Di Loreto, served in World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War in the U.S Army, the Army Air Corps (which became the U.S. Marines), the U.S. Marines, and the U.S. Navy. The Art Deco Orchestra then started up the tunes and guests danced into the night.
This always grand celebration was started by Pierre Claeyssens in 1996 to pay tribute to the U.S. Armed Forces. As a youth in Belgium during World War I, Claeyssens experienced liberation by American soldiers and later immigrated to the United States, where he became an architect. Through marriage, he acquired enormous wealth and became a leading philanthropist. Near his death, he gave John Blankenship a $1 million check, which Blankenship used to establish the foundation.
Blankenship works alongside his wife Hazel, an Executive Board, and an Advisory Board to provide financial support to many programs serving veterans and active duty personnel, including UCSB Veterans Resource Team, SBCC Veterans Support and Resource Center, UCSB ROTC, and Family Readiness Units at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Naval Base Ventura County, and the Sea Cadets. It also does advocacy work for the student veterans’ groups.
The foundation holds many annual events honoring veterans, including the Memorial Day Ceremony at the Santa Barbara Cemetery, the 4th of July Concert and Parade, the Veterans Day Ceremony at the cemetery (with the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1649), and the Veterans Parade on State Street. In conjunction with the Channel City Club, PCVF holds Living History Luncheons and Symposiums where noted veterans share their stories. It has active partnerships with about a dozen other organizations for various programs and events, including VetNet Santa Barbara and Hearts Therapeutic Equestrian Center.
PCVF has an extensive collection of photographs, artwork, personal histories and other memorabilia, which it has long sought to display in a museum. It has created 92 shadowboxes at the Veterans’ Memorial Building, each one dedicated to a veteran from the area. An exciting display opportunity for the aviation portion of the foundation’s collection is coming early next year. An investment group led by Warren Butler will convert the High Sierra Grill near the airport to the Flightline Restaurant and Bar, with aviation-related items displayed throughout the space, including large, model airplanes suspended from the ceiling and a plethora of memorabilia. The restaurant will remain open through the conversion.
For a list of Veteran’s Day weekend events and for more info about PCVF, go to pcvf.org.
By Gail Arnold