WEST LIBERTY — The mournful notes of taps mingled with hopes for a better future Friday as Gov. Steve Beshear joined West Liberty residents in their annual Memorial Day service, remembering fallen veterans and the devastating March tornadoes.
Speaking before about 200 people, Beshear praised the courage and sacrifice of veterans, and the persistence of residents who are rebuilding their shattered community after the storms.
"We are a proud people; we are a resilient people," Beshear said. "We have proved that time and again, not only in combat but ... right here in West Liberty and Morgan County, as we responded to the terrible tornadoes that came through town."
The March 2 storms wrecked downtown West Liberty and left six people dead in Morgan County. A total of 24 people died statewide.
Beshear acknowledged that West Liberty has much to do — it will never look the same again, he said — but he insisted that the community is on the road to recovery.
"We are coming back," he declared, pledging continued state support. "A lot is happening, and we're going to continue to make it happen."
While he was in town, Beshear signed into law three bills passed by the 2012 General Assembly that he said will help keep the storm recovery moving.
They are House Bill 255, which exempts building supplies from state sales tax in storm-damaged areas; Senate Bill 55, which makes it easier for out-of-state first responders to help Kentucky after a disaster; and House Bill 421, which protects homeowners from shady roofing contractors. The legislature passed all three measures unanimously.
Beshear ceremoniously signed the bills in the middle of downtown West Liberty, on the site of the former Clark's Station, a gas station and convenience store that was destroyed on March 2. Even as the governor did the signing, work crews prepared the site so construction on a new Clark's Station can start next week.
Rick Clark, who owns the business with his father, John Clark, said the new outlet will be bigger, offer more services and employ more than three times as many people as the original. John Clark said they plan to spend about $1 million on the store, which should open about 90 days after construction starts.
Beshear and local officials hailed the project as a sign of West Liberty's resurgence.
The optimism was tempered at the Memorial Day service, however, by solemn memories of loved ones who gave their lives on distant fields in many wars. The service was held at the West Liberty Memorial Gardens and Mausoleum on a spring-green hill outside town.
An honor guard of aging veterans in uniforms fired a 21-rifle salute. A bagpiper in full regalia played My Old Kentucky Home and Amazing Grace, and a trumpeter provided a haunting rendition of taps.
Morgan County Judge-Executive Tim Conley fought back tears as he spoke of fallen veterans and the harsh blows the community had suffered in the storms.
"I get emotional. ... I can't help it," he said. "It's the love I have for the people here."
Beshear urged Morgan Countians to remember "those folks who stood up and continue to stand up ... for our freedoms and our liberty."
"I long for the day," he said, "when the number of soldiers killed in service ... becomes a static and finite number and we can quit adding to that number."