At the largest gathering of American Legion Family members since the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March 2020, 91-year-old Edward L. Harris Jr. of Indianapolis reached into his repertoire of prayer, poetry, humor and song to praise the moment Sunday morning in Phoenix.
The American Legion national chaplain throughout the last two complicated years drew a standing ovation from hundreds of veterans and their families, thankful to be together again, at the Patriotic Memorial Service of the 102nd American Legion National Convention.
Harris Jr., a Korean War and Vietnam War veteran who served more than 23 years in the U.S. Army, delivered a prayer not often recited in church and performed a song that isn’t found in any hymnals.
“Regardless of the religion, the religious group, everywhere in the world … each have their own books, poems, rituals, songs and writings,” Harris Jr. told the crowd. “It is from these types of experiences that I have tried to form my presentations over the years. I know that it was God that gave the thoughts, the words, the writings – that have been spoken with a reverence that has proven to renew strength for many.”
The prayer he said next was not what the congregation expected.
Lord, thou knowest I am growing old.
Keep me from becoming talkative and possessed
With the idea that I may express myself
On every subject.
Release me from the cravings
To strengthen and straighten out
Keep me from the reciting of endless details.
Give me the strength to get to the point.
Seal my lips when I am inclined
To tell of my aches and pains.
They are increasing with the years
And my love to speak of them
Grows sweeter as time goes by.
Teach me the lesson
That occasionally I may be wrong.
Make me thoughtful, but not nosy.
Helpful, but not bossy.
With my vast store of wisdom and experience,
It seems a pity not to use all of it.
But thou knowest, Lord,
I want a few friends at the end.
Laughter arose from the Phoenix Convention Center hall at the punchline of each stanza.
Then – in a service that featured “America the Beautiful” and “Hymn to Freedom” by the Phoenix Boys Choir – Harris Jr. spoke of music and how so many great singers nurtured their love of song “in some type of church … where they got their first experience.”
But it was the baritone national chaplain himself who stole the show in his own rendition of the Louis Armstrong classic, “What a Wonderful World.”
He began by speaking the lyrics and flowed into singing them, bringing the crowd to its feet when he hit the line, “I see friends shaking hands, saying ‘How do you do?’ They’re really saying, ‘I love you.’”
Harris Jr. thanked American Legion national officers and staff, Department of Indiana American Legion Family members and his friends in the department’s 11th District, where he has served 21 years as chaplain. He thanked his wife of 64 years, Van. And through his humor, song and spirit, he thanked God on behalf of all who gathered there, for the opportunity to reunite in person and consider, given all that has happened since March 2020, that it’s still a wonderful world.
The service included posting of the colors by the Harrisburg Post 472 Color Guard of Houston, Texas; a memorial prayer from American Legion Auxiliary Past National Chaplain Rosemarie W. Hauck and five presentations of memorial wreaths to honor those no longer among us.
Presenting wreaths for The American Legion were National Commander James W. “Bill” Oxford and National Adjutant Daniel S. Wheeler; for the American Legion Auxiliary, National President Nicole Clapp and National Secretary Linda Boone; for the Sons of the American Legion, National Vice Commander Chris Cook and National Adjutant Tony Wright; and National Chaplains Harris Jr. and Hauck “for those who lost their lives serving America in the past year.” A candle of remembrance for POW/MIAs was lit during the service by 2021 American Legion Boys Nation President Ryan Jung of California.
By Jeff Stoffer, www.legion.org