Exchange Club of Newport Harbor’s Sixth Annual Field of Honor Touches Hearts
There are three special days in Newport Beach each year when you can view an impressive array of 1,776 American flags fluttering in the breeze. The breathtaking sight happens in May on Armed Forces Day weekend, thanks to the men of the 89-year-old Exchange Club of Newport Harbor, who work tirelessly to make the three-day event meaningful to the community.
The Field of Honor idea came about when Jerry Nininger, who co-chairs the event with Exchange Club of Newport Harbor’s immediate past President Bill Bechtel, visited an exchange club convention in Florida, where Colonial Flags had an impressive display of flags and ideas for fundraising. One of those fundraising ideas was the Field of Honor program honoring the military.
“I brought the Field of Honor fundraising idea back to our club, and we decided to take it on as a project,” says Nininger, who was president at the time. “That was six years ago, and it has since become a well-known event in Newport Beach. I must say that the City of Newport Beach has been a tremendous support.”
The three-day event is held at Castaways Park in Newport Beach each year, where there is room for the large U.S. flags to be displayed. For $45, a person can tie a yellow ribbon with a picture of their military loved one to a flag pole with their name, rank and branch of service, so it is visible throughout the three-day affair. After the event, the people making the tributes can take the flag and pole home with them.
Field of Honor begins on Friday of Armed Forces weekend and features a program created specifically for youth. More than 800 5th and 6th graders are bused in from the Newport-Mesa School District for the educational event. This year’s event, on May 15th, unfortunately, had to be cancelled because it was rained out. It was to have featured a musical performance by the Newport Coast Elementary School Choir, Presentation of Colors by the Buena Park High School Army JROTC Color Guard, Sonora School’s Edward Whelan leading the Pledge of Allegiance, the singing of the National Anthem by Francis Scott Key’s great great grandson, 93-year-old San Clemente resident George Key, accompanied by the same Newport Coast Elementary School Choir, the Dedication of Service Military Flags by a group of local Girl Scouts, a Young Citizenship Essay read by Emma Goodman of Victoria School, US Army’s Col. Lee Reynolds’ keynote address, and the flag folding ceremony conducted by the same Buena Park High School Army JROTC Color Guard.
Saturday’s program featured Nininger as the event’s master of ceremonies. The Presentation of Colors was executed by the Marine Corps Color Guard from Camp Pendleton, followed by the Orange County Fire Authority Pipes and Drums and the Sons of the American Revolution Color Guard. It was a grand moment, to be sure. A stirring National Anthem was performed by George Key and Danielle Jacoby of Fullerton Junior College. Also impressive was the leading of the Pledge of Allegiance by 97-year-old US Army Sgt. Margaret Barker, who served in World War II. Nininger introduced special guests Newport Beach Mayor Ed Selich and Colonel Lee Reynolds, US Army Reserve and military technical adviser for the movies, who both said a few words. The keynote address was delivered by Pastor Frank Orzio, USMC Ret., while a heartfelt Flag Folding Ceremony and Presentation in Honor of Navy Seal Matt Mills, killed in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan, was backed up with a reading by Pastor Orzio, who then presented the folded flag to Mills’ grandmother Connie Murphy.
The final day, Sunday, saw veterans available at the site to visit with any of the attendees who came to view and walk through the impactful flag display.
The effort netted $45,000 for the Newport Harbor Exchange Club. “Anything we can do to support the military families is money well spent,” Nininger says.
Bechtel, the only member to serve twice as Exchange Club president, shares that the club contributes on average $240,000 each year to different projects. The club’s main thrusts include Americanism, Youth and Community Service.
Besides Field of Honor in the Americanism category, the club strives to educate the community by placing “Freedom Shrines,” which are plaques of America’s great documents of freedom, such as the U.S. Constitution and Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, in such places as local schools, city halls and libraries.
As to the Youth category, the club sponsors programs annually to students in high schools in the Newport-Mesa School District. Multiple scholarships are offered for Youth of the Year, a Young Citizenship Award, an award for excellence in football and scholarship, and Accepting the Challenge of Excellence awards to youth who have overcome unusual or exceptional circumstances.
Under Community Service, the club recognizes community heroes in the Newport Beach and Costa Mesa police and fire departments. Bechtel, who served with the Costa Mesa Police Department for 30 years, first as a detective sergeant and later as director of the helicopter unit, thinks the club’s support is essential. Environmental projects include participating in the Newport Beach Back Bay Cleanup and helping out at the Oasis Senior Center. However, the club’s most impressive involvement has been with child abuse prevention. “We built the Orange County Child Abuse Prevention Center,” Bechtel says, “and we continue to support it with an annual movie benefit. Since 1983, we’ve donated more than $1 million to the center.”
The members of the Newport Harbor Exchange Club certainly don’t let any grass grow under their feet. Its 62 members are committed and more than willing to do the work to make this community a better place. How impressive is that!