Not all heroes wear capes or masks, emcee Kelly Epperson told the crowd Thursday night when Mount Airy’s official Christmas tree was lit.
They might be friends or neighbors who are not as noticeable as Spiderman or Batman, but who’ve done extraordinary things nonetheless — such as leading the rescue of a future U.S. president during World War II.
“We have a real hero in our midst tonight,” Epperson said over a loudspeaker while introducing William F. “Bud” Liebenow during the 21st-annual tree-lighting program on the lawn on the Municipal Building.
Liebenow, who is 96 and will turn 97 next month, was tapped for the task of flipping a switch to light the large ash tree at the southeast corner of the City Hall grounds.
And as the light from the tree illuminated the area, loud cheers were heard from the crowd — not only for the light but the man responsible.
Liebenow is a native of Fredericksburg, Virginia, who has lived in Mount Airy since 2006. He was an officer in the U.S. Navy during World War II and spearheaded the rescue of John F. Kennedy after Kennedy’s patrol boat (PT 109) was rammed by Japanese destroyer in the South Pacific. Liebenow remained friends with JFK for years afterward.
The local veteran also played a key role in the D-Day invasion. It included shuttling agents back and forth to the Normandy coast by boat in preparation for the Allied landing and rescuing survivors from the USS Corry, the lead destroyer of the D-Day task force.
Despite his distinguished military record, Liebenow was basking in the glow of humility Thursday night.
“I think it’s great,” he said of being able to light the tree, adding modestly, “I don’t know why they selected me.”
Liebenow has been called on for similar roles in recent years, such as serving as honorary grand marshal of the local Fourth of July parade and being keynote speaker for the city’s Memorial Day program.
“It’s quite an honor to do this type of stuff,” he said Thursday.
Liebenow received a pin from Phillip Mack of Mountain Valley Hospice and Palliative Care as part of its “We Honor Veterans” program.
The Mountain Valley Hospice Choir also performed four songs during the tree-lighting program, including a stirring rendition of “Amen.”
Another highlight was the appearance of Santa Claus, who is known for his flamboyant modes of arrival at the annual tree-lighting — this time on the back of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. He then sat in a special chair to meet children and give them treats.
Many in the crowd watched the proceedings while sipping hot cocoa provided by members of the Beacons group of First Presbyterian Church.
Symbolism of lights
While the hundreds of people gathered on the City Hall grounds seemed excited by the tree lighting, speakers at Thursday night’s program reminded them of a deeper meaning.
The Rev. Griff Gatewood of First Presbyterian Church said during an opening prayer that the bulbs on the tree can be viewed as the light of God and a sign of salvation.
“The spirit of Christmas is not measured by the number of lights on a tree,” Epperson reminded, but the friends and family who truly make the holiday great.
Mayor David Rowe also commented on the symbolic nature of the tree’s lights while borrowing from Scripture during his remarks to the crowd.
“You are the light of the world,” Rowe told those in attendance, encouraging them to let that light shine through good deeds.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.