A familiar Great Bend Veteran, Lonnie Wright, won’t be at the dedication of the second memorial stone at Golden Belt Memorial Park today. That’s because the World War II Army Air Corps veteran, Silver Star recipient and Pearl Harbor Survivor, will be honored at the Colorado Avalanche versus the Winnipeg Jets game at Denver’s Pepsi Stadium tonight. It’s part of the franchise’s “Military Appreciation Night.” Wright will be joined by veterans from every major conflict as they conduct a ceremonial face-off at center ice prior to the game. As the WWII Veteran, Wright will be the person who actually drops the puck for the face-off.
“We feel it is important to honor all veterans, but especially WWII veterans, as fewer of “The Greatest Generation” are around each year, said Steve Johnston, Executive Director and Producer of Game Presentation with Kroenke Sports and Entertainment.
This sentiment is shared by Scott Woodward, Wright’s great-nephew, a physical therapist and athletic trainer with the Colorado Avalanche hockey team. Last year, he requested the opportunity to nominate some of his relatives for the Veterans Day honor. Recently, he received a call from Johnston’s department, requesting information about Wright. Soon after, he learned his great-uncle had been chosen to drop the puck at the Veterans Day game.
Woodward grew up knowing about the Wright’s WWII service thanks to the many stories his mother Danielle “Dixie” Woodward told of her uncle the Word War II hero.
Dixie’s earliest memories of Wright include his much heralded homecoming to North Platte, Neb. following his service in the war. Her mother worked for a department store there at the time, and she remembers the display window being decorated to welcome him home.
“He was so handsome, and to me he seemed to be 10 feet tall with a chest full of honors,” she said. She is not sure how he met Alberta, but it seemed in no time they were married, and went on to homestead in Wasilla, Alaska. They lived there for 10 years, eventually gaining ownership to the land where they hunted and fished. When they would visit home, Alberta brought salmon and wild game she had preserved to share.
Later, Dixie said, the couple returned to the states, settling in Kansas so Alberta’s father could retire and they took over operation of the family farm. When she was a teen, Dixie came to visit during harvest, helping to put together lunches for the workers, and after a few weeks, leaving with $20 in her pocket, “more money than I’d ever had before in my life.”
One of Lonnie’s stories she shared with her own children was of a time when he was a B-29 side gunner. The other side gunner on his plane was shot, and Lonnie raced from one side of the aircraft to the other, simulating two gunners to fool their Japanese attackers into believing there were still two active gunners, allowing them a chance to complete their mission without being singled out.
Though they lived states away from one another, Woodward remembers the times he met Wright face to face fondly.
“I didn’t have as much time to spend with him growing up as I would have liked,” Woodward said. “This is something I had hoped to be able to have a part in to honor him for all he has done for our country and for our family.”
At 97 years old, Wright continues to get around on his own. Still, some precautions will be taken to keep him and the other veterans safe as the walk to center ice, Johnston said. They will deploy carpets with rubber backing for them to walk on, plus they will have escorts available for them if further assistance is needed.
Wright’s son Al, a doctor in Washington, flew to Wichita Thursday, rented a car and picked up Wright and his wife, and they flew from Wichita to Denver together. They were met by the other son, John, who lives in Castle Rock, Colo. Both sons will be there to witness the honor their father will receive.