VERO BEACH — Because it’s not every day someone turns 100 — let alone a person who’s a double veteran of civilian and military service to the United States of America — some friends and admirers of Hank Sulima planted a bug in the ear of a local veterans council leader about his milestone June 8. And, just like that, a parade and party were planned within just days.
Mr. Sulima, who served in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s and then went on to the U.S. Army Air Forces to fight the Japanese in the Pacific during World War II, was born on June 8, 1920. He has often served as a “living history” lecturer at Florida’s Civilian Conservation Corps Museum, which is in Highlands Hammock State Park in Sebring.
On Friday, June 5, under dark, threatening skies, they gathered — dozens and dozens of Vero Beach police squad cars, Indian River County sheriff’s vehicles, fire engines, a ladder truck, ambulances, rescue units and representatives of veterans service organizations, plus well-wishing citizens alerted by Facebook posts — in the north parking lot at McKee Botanical Gardens in Vero to set up the parade.
Right at 2 p.m. they started their procession with emergency lights, headlights and fog lamps flashing, sirens wailing and American flags flying into Vista Gardens, destined for the clubhouse where Mr. Sulima and a couple of dozen well-wishers, neighbors and friends had gathered for the party an hour before.
There’s a full video of this impressive salute to Mr. Sulima pinned on two Facebook pages, those of the Veterans Council of Indian River County (VC) and the Next Generation Veterans (NGV) of Indian River County, whose post is at: facebook.com/NGVIRC/videos/286964852484834/UzpfSTcwNDI0MTgxNjM3Njg0NzoxODg2MjUzMjQxNTA5MDI2/
Mr. Sulima was grateful and joyous in watching the tribute organized for him. Jim Romanek, executive director of the VC, council President Marty Zickert (U.S. Air Force colonel, retired) and Vero Beach Vice Mayor (and VC member) Laura Moss joined him outside the Vista Gardens clubhouse, near his condo, for some remarks and pictures after the procession had passed. (It lasted a good 20 minutes.)
As civilian vehicles brought up the rear of the parade, with many flying flags and occupants waving signs and shouting greetings, Mr. Romanek remarked, “The veteran community here is amazing!” Mr. Sulima, his significant other, Lydia Murphy, and other folks gathered around them were remarking on how large the turnout was.
Other groups involved were both the Vero city and Indian River County governments, Vero Beach Veterans Inc., the American Legion Felix Poppell Post 39 in Vero Beach, among many that included young NGV members with their families.
As one vehicle’s driver blasted “Happy Birthday” on a loudspeaker, and another stopped to pass a liquor bottle to the participants, Col. Zickert remarked to Mr. Sulima, “Congratulations on hitting one hundred! It was all from eating kale, right?” he said, winking and evincing a wave of giggles in the small crowd.
“He’s just a party boy. He parties all the time!” said Ms. Murphy.
Others chimed in, “Maybe a little bourbon?” Hank remarked, “A few medications, too!”
Mr. Romanek felt compelled to point out, lest Mr. Sulima be tiring or feeling old from all the attention, that there actually was someone more advanced in years than he at the gathering. “He’s a 101-year-old vet who was at Normandy,” Mr. Romanek said. “Where’d he go?”
Mr. Sulima received many gifts and tributes, including a new American flag from the VC and NGV, and speeches were made, food and cake shared and memories reminisced about in the party that followed in the Vista Gardens Clubhouse.
The Normandy veteran sat in his wheelchair, listening to every word.