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Rice keeping soldiers’ memories alive

For years Unicoi County resident and veteran Edgar Rice, pictured above, has created memorial plaques and placed them on the graves of veterans throughout the region. (Contributed photo)

By Richard Rourk

The Erwin Record was recently notified by representatives of the Town of Erwin about an extraordinary individual named Edgar Rice who is working to keep local heroes’ memories alive.

The newspaper reached out to Rice and while he agreed to be interviewed for this story, he made it clear that he doesn’t honor others for his own recognition.

“I almost didn’t answer because I don’t want a big deal about this – this is just something I love to do,” Edgar A. Rice HHC 24th Infantry Division, Apo New York 09112 said.

As his way to honor those who served, Rice continues to place memorials on the graves of veterans, who gave their all for the freedoms we share today.

“I finished assembling the veteran plaques for Memorial Day 2020 today,” Rice said. “I only have one chair left in the dining area, but that is all I need. I think there are 92 graves this year, the most ever. Some such as my Father (Robert H. Rice) and Jimmy Gilbert, I have been placing one on their grave for 25 or 30 years and some such as Johnny Leach and Charlie King this is the first year. I have visited Bill Mondrage for 20 years.”

By decorating the graves of these brave men and women, Rice is able to connect to his comrades through his work.

“As I prepare these memorials, I find myself calling their names and remembering my connection with each one and remembering the stories that some told me as I talked to them down through the years,” Rice said. “Those who I have pictured in this (Facebook) post, like Ronald Sykes and I were friends who grew up next door to each other and friends since 1946. Bill Mondrage and I have been friends since high school. Ron and Bill were victims of Agent Orange. Johnny Leach worked with him for 30 years and also died from the effects of Agent Orange. Donald Jackson was a POW in WWII.

“My dad, Robert H. Rice, was drafted in the Army when he was 32 years old and had four children and one on the way. Erdman Mullins the agriculture teacher at HHS and later was the principal. Charlie King who led the American Legion Post 25 of which I am a member, he kept the post going for 50 years,” Rice continued. “James Gilbert who died in Vietnam, his sister Phyllis and I started first grade together. Lt. Dillo Sykes who I never met but heard of him almost all my life as the Rice family lived next door to his brother Arvil since 1946. Lt. Sykes died in World War II in 1945.”

The work that Rice does reminds him of what the sacrifice was for.

“As much as I enjoy working on these memorials the blessing comes when we travel through the mountain cemeteries in Western North Carolina, East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia to place them on the graves of these American heroes. Sometimes we place them with tears in our eyes and always with a grateful heart for the service these men gave to the United States of America,” Rice said. “Some paid the ultimate sacrifice. They are prime examples of why we are the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave. I am proud to have served my country with the U.S. Army and I must say, ‘Rest in peace comrades’.”

Rice does have some help from a friend named Andra Taylor Eanes.

“I am looking forward to spending two 15 hour days visiting the graves of these 92 great Americans,” Rice said. “I will probably do North Carolina and Tennessee on May 20 or 21 and Virginia on May 22 or 23.

“I usually take a day off between the two journeys. I believe it was Douglas McArthur that said, ‘Old soldiers never die, they simply fade away.’ Hopefully, when I fade away someone will drop by and place a flag on my grave.”