Woodstock parade chairwoman steps aside, others step up to organize annual event

Volunteers and members are needed for veteran organizations

Ashton Biemena, 3, of Marengo, waits for the parade to start during the Woodstock VFW Post 5040 City Square Memorial Day Ceremony and Parade on Monday, May 29, 2023, in Woodstock.

There were cold years and morning rain, but in her memory the weather never stopped Woodstock from hosting its annual Memorial Day ceremony and parade, Chris Gehrke said.

A fall last October, however, did stop Gehrke from continuing her tradition of organizing the event.

For the past 10 years, Gehrke, 75, and the VFW Post 5040 Auxiliary president, was the person making the calls, securing the floats, and ensuring the day’s events happened without a hitch.

“Chris has been a tireless, tireless pioneer for the VFW post and the work they do within the community. That is part of what makes Woodstock a very, very special place,” Mayor Mike Turner said in his address to the crowd gathered at the historic Woodstock Square.

While she passed off her list of emails and phone numbers to VFW Commander Fred Strauss and Senior Vice Commander Ed Chambers, it didn’t stop the phone calls completely.

“Chris has been a tireless, tireless pioneer for the VFW post and the work they do within the community.”

—  Woodstock Mayor Mike Turner

“People are still calling me, even a couple of days ago” asking if they could be one of the 50 or so entries joining the parade, she said.

It is that kind of volunteerism that helps the VFW continue its activities in the community – and something the organization needs more of, Gehrke said.

“We need more members to keep doing what we are doing. Most everyone is getting pretty old,” she said.

She’s still active in the auxiliary but had to step back from some of her duties following a middle-of-the-night fall, Gehrke said. She injured her back, and cataracts have made it harder to see the computer screen and emails she sends to organize events.

Veterans organizations are seeing their membership age and a change in demographics, said state Sen. Craig Wilcox. He was the keynote speaker Monday for Woodstock’s veterans memorial service.

The McHenry resident is active in the towns VFW Post 4600 and retired from Air Force as a lieutenant colonel.

Wilcox said he believes part of the reason younger veterans don’t get as involved with the VFW or American Legion and other groups is due to the mobility of residents.

“It used to be you served from your home town and you returned to your home town,” Wilcox said. Now veterans move to where they have a job or a family but not the town they grew up in, which may make them less keen to join.

Now, the most active members are Vietnam-era veterans, Wilcox said. According to the national VFW, its member’s average age is 67.

Woodstock’s VFW post is fortunate to have its own hall, just a block off of the square, Strauss said. Around the country, the organizations meet in bowling alleys and motels.

“We would like to see you all there as often as you can, in our building and meeting place,” Strauss said.

When VFWs have a cause they support in a community, Wilcox added, it does help draw in veterans and their families to the organizations.

“Being active in the community helps, when residents see you doing something,” he said.