Decatur's Spirit of America Festival had its birth at a time of national strife.
It was 1967.
The Vietnam War was claiming the lives of tens of thousands of Americans. The people and their leaders were divided on the wisdom of the war.
Protests and riots became common. The nation shook as it became clear that Americans had conflicting visions of their country's destiny.
Former Decatur Daily publisher Barrett C. Shelton, one of the founders of the festival, leapfrogged over the national divide.
For all our disharmony, he realized, we all love America. For all the dispute over the wisdom of the war, no one could look in the eyes of our soldiers and recognize them as anything other than heroes.
On Wednesday, the festival again showed its healing power. Americans can argue about pretty much anything, but not about the patriotism of Laura Ayers, Lt. Col. James L. Walker and Melinda Dunn.
Harvest resident Ayers, who received the Audie Murphy Patriotism Award, is a civilian at Redstone Arsenal. She has spent countless hours volunteering her time to soldiers and their families. She is co-author of a Reintegration Action Plan workbook for returning soldiers.
Walker, who received the Barrett C. Shelton Freedom Award, is well known to those in Decatur.
After retiring from a distinguished military career, he established the first Army JROTC Program at Austin High School in 1995. He not only has developed the program into one of the best in the nation, he has provided hard-nosed support for hundreds of high school students. Many have gone on to serve in military academies.
Melinda Dunn, president of the festival, won the Humanitarian Award for her work promoting family events and historic preservation.
The patriotism exhibited amidst the pageantry and fireworks of the Spirit of America Festival was a reminder that love of country is not a partisan affair. We may have different visions for our country, but we all want her to succeed.
Because of people like Ayers, Walker and Dunn — because of the thousands of ordinary citizens who showed their patriotism Wednesday — America will continue to embrace the compassionate strength that make it the proudest nation on Earth.
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