Cover Photo by Mark R. Day

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Speech: Keynote Address at ceremonies honoring Robert H. Day in Evergreen Burial Park, Roanoke, Va May 23, 2015

Mayor Bowers, Mr. Wilson, Reverend Smith, Mr.  Barber (SCV), Ms. Mador (OCR), Mrs. Smith (UDC), Mr. Day, Brothers of the SUVCW, members of the SCV and UDC, friends and guest.
Paraphrased extemporaneous remarks: Good morning.  As, I drove here this morning from Lynchburg, I had opportunity to pass by several cemeteries, and I noticed the many flags which were waving over the graves of our veterans.  Each of those silent sentinels,  waving in the morning breeze, marked the resting place of an American hero.  If you look to your left or right you will see the flags that wave here in Evergreen Burial Park and we understand ourselves to be surrounded by the men who gave much that we should have freedom.  It is our duty to honor their sacrifice on Memorial Day.  Let us never fail to do so. 

I would like to start with a quote
As we gather today to recognize Robert H. Day, I think it fitting that we consider the idea of dignity.  For dignity is a virtue each of us seeks and dignity is the foundation of the human experience.
     To understand the importance of Major Robert H. Day's life and his many contributions in the history of Roanoke, we will have to make a journey back in history to the years 1865 through 1876.  This was the time following the Civil war, which we now call Reconstruction.  During these years America face uncertainty and restlessness, and though the Civil War had come to an end at Appomattox Court House, Virginia and Bennett Place in North Carolina, with the surrender of R.E. Lee and Joseph Johnson, the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln cast a pall over the nation and the specter of Reconstruction created apprehension in the South.   Many people wondered what form reconstruction would take and how it would be administered and some just hoped for a just and fair outcome, while preparing for the worst.  The war had left many southern cities in ruin and the need for rebuilding the economy was a priority.  It is here then that two key elements, which lead to the creation of current day Roanoke must be mentioned.  First our region of Virginia, while attacked on several occasions, was less seriously damaged than others regions and secondly our geography, being situated at the head of the Shenandoah Valley, along the Roanoke River, would play a large role in emerging successfully from Reconstruction.  Following the war the village / hamlet of Big Lick, now called Roanoke, became an important stop on the Atlantic, Mississippi, and Ohio Railroad.  In 1881 the AM&O was purchased by a Northern banking firm, which also controlled the Shenandoah Valley Railroad and merged the two in order to form the Norfolk and Western Railway.  Almost immediately economic growth began as coal from the Appalachian Mountains began to flow through Roanoke on its way to Steel Mills in the North.  Coincidentally the railroad now also brought us another asset in the form of Robert H. Day a gentleman who would leave his mark on Roanoke. 
     Robert H. Day was born September 28, 1835, during the Presidency of Andrew Jackson, in Bridgewater Township, Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania.  Robert was apprenticed to the Erie Railroad in 1849 as a machinist for a term of three years.  In 1852 he was promoted to Fireman and twenty-one months later he became a full-fledged Locomotive Engineer.  In 1858 Robert resigned from the Erie Railroad and taking Horace Greeley's advice went west in search of work in his chosen field.  After spending a short time in Texas he migrated to the city of New Orleans where he became connected with the Tallert and Bro's Company, which was headquartered in Richmond, Virginia, building stationary engines for Grist Mills and Cotton Gins.   At the outbreak of Civil War Robert Day returned to the North and enlisted as a private in the 56th Pennsylvania Infantry Company D. and rose quickly through the ranks due to his uncommon valor and leadership abilities.  He was promoted from 1st Sgt. to 2nd Lt. in September 1862, and was severely wounded at the Battle of Second Manassas (Bull Run).  Following a long period of recovery he rejoined his unit and was promoted to 1st Lt. on March 1st 1863 and Capt. on June 13th 1863.  Robert was taken prisoner during the first day's battle at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863 and was imprisoned in Richmond's infamous at Libby Prison.  Captain Day was one of the leaders of an escape from Libby in February of 1864 but was recaptured and sent to several Confederate Prisoner of War Camps in Georgia and the Carolina's.  Only with the arrival of General William Tecumseh Sherman's army in the Carolina's was Captain Day freed from captivity and he was discharged from the Union Army on January 10, 1865.
     Upon his discharge Robert returned to Pennsylvania and began working once again for the Erie Railroad and played a significant role as line superintendent and later as locomotive superintendent with various divisions of the Erie.  In 1882 Robert accepted the position of Road Foreman for the newly created Norfolk and Western Railway on the Shenandoah line and relocated his family to Roanoke, formerly known as Big Lick and quickly became active in local civics and economic development and distinguished himself a leader in several national organizations of that era.  He was a member of the Grand Army of the Republic, a Civil War Veterans group, which sought to assist the wives and orphans of Union Soldiers and played a increasingly powerful role in national politics.  He was also a member of the Brotherhood of Railroad Engineers, an organization that continues to this very day, and he was a member of the Libby Prison Tunnel Association.    Robert H. Day's contributions to the city of Roanoke include being connected with the Roanoke Street Railway, which began service in 1887, as its superintendent.   Robert himself drove the teams of mules used to pull the cars and on one occasion had the unfortunate experience of having the mules kicking a fender off a car and striking him.  In 1892 the mule pulled cars where replaced with electric cars and "The Major" as people had taken to calling Robert was elected by the board of managers of the Roanoke Electric Light and Power Company, as General Manager, and had also been at one time the President and General Manager of the Old Dominion paper Bag Company. 
     Robert H. Day was a man born in the North, Trained in the North, and who fought for the Northern Cause fortunately however,  Robert H. Day  was also a man who came to Roanoke with the Railroad and contributed to the revitalization of this city and the greater region it serves.  Roanoke owes this great pioneer a great debt of gratitude, which we can only begin to repay today with this simple ceremony.  Robert was once introduced in the following manner.  "We have with us today one who has grown gray in the faithful and self-sacrificing service . . . whose fidelity and unswerving loyalty to duty, whose character unsullied and spotless as a man . . . . has become enshrined in the hearts of each and every member.  His life has been like an open book, to be read by all men . . . a life worth of emulation by all.  No granite shaft or bronze token will then be needed to preserve his name . . . and when the granite shaft that marks the tomb of some heroic dead . . . shall have crumbled to dust with time . . . the name of our honored . . . friend will still be preserved.

     Today, in this ceremony we have done our best to preserve the name of Robert H. Day.  Let his name find its place in the storied history of Roanoke and let no one forget that he lived his life in service to the greater good of mankind, as a soldier, a leader, a visionary, and a faithful citizen of this his adopted home city.  It is my dearest hope that everyone here will remember the name of Robert H. Day and will strive to teach the next generation about his virtuous qualities and his human dignity.   Men who possess such  characteristics  as humility and self-sacrifice provide the right kind of example for future generations fight for the noble cause, involve themselves in the betterment of humanity, and do the great things which they did not dream possible.   May God grant Robert Day his eternal grace and may God grant each of us the knowledge that we hold the power to preserve or ignore history and the men and women who gave us this great country and may he guide us to do what is right.

Written and presented by Mark R. Day 5-23-15 at Evergreen Burial Park.  Copyright by Mark R. Day 5-23-15, all rights reserved.

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