Ralph Calabrese calls for NFL boycott and letter-writing campaign during Veterans Day ceremony at Finger Lakes Community College

HOPEWELL — Pride and patriotism is what Ralph Calabrese's Italian immigrant parents instilled in him and his siblings.

In turn, he has instilled the same in countless youth and continues to fight for his country and fellow veterans long after doing so in the Korean War.

Calabrese, the keynote speaker Friday at a Finger Lakes Community College ceremony in honor of Veterans Day, said his father's eyes would well up whenever he saw Old Glory and noted that he was very meticulous in its care and storage.

"He would tell us 'That's your flag. You take care of it and it will take care of you,'" Calabrese said, getting choked up at times.

He said when World War II finally ended, his mother ran into the yard, knelt down and kissed "the ground of this great country," then grabbed a couple of handfuls of earth, calling the children in to ask them if they knew what it was.

"Yeah, ma, it's dirt," Calabrese recalled. "Her face got a little stern. She looked at us and said, 'It's your country, if you don't take care of it, don't expect somebody else to.'"

He talked about pride and patriotism through the ages: the Minutemen; Francis Scott Key writing the national anthem as bombs and rockets exploded during the Battle of Baltimore in defense of Fort McHenry; Ira Hayes and the raising of an American flag at Iwo Jima during World War II. He also talked about the symbols of America, its flag and national anthem, almost shouting, "I'm an American and damn proud of it."

Calabrese then brought up demonstrations in the National Football League in which some players kneel during the playing of the national anthem or stay in locker rooms until it is over and called on the "silent majority" to speak up and boycott NFL sponsors, to quit going to games and to write letters to lobby lawmakers.

"We love football, but we love our country more," Calabrese said. "Do you know that many of these stadiums get tax breaks and get grants? Your tax dollars. I'm getting hoarse. I get excited when I think about this. What a slap in the face. They might just as well thumb their nose at our symbols of freedom, the symbols that our veterans and their families suffered for. The silent majority is going to get vocal and we will show them that we will not stand for any disgraceful behavior to our glorious flag or our national anthem."

He said he is not objecting to people complaining about things they think are wrong, but that they should use other methods such as lobbying lawmakers, going to the media or having peaceful assemblies.

"I'm disgusted at the disgraceful way they're doing it," he said of the protests. "They don't have to disgrace our symbols of freedom.'

Calabrese was introduced by FLCC President Robert Nye, Ph.D., who has a lengthy history of military service.

He outlined Calabrese's service and his post-military advocacy and successful fight to save the Canandaigua VA Medical Center from closure, noting Calabrese has received numerous awards and honors — including the Bronze Service Star, Korean Service Medal and Combat Infantry Badge — and was recognized by the Canandaigua Area Chamber of Commerce in 2011 as its "Mr. Canandaigua." He was inducted into the New York State Veterans Hall of Fame in 2012 and — just last year — was presented with a special American flag flown in his honor over the nation's Capitol in recognition of his dedication and service to veterans.

Calabrese's long-term dedication and support of veterans was also recognized by state Sen. Pam Helming, who presented him with a framed Certificate of Appreciation from the state Senate.

Helming talked about how Calabrese inspired her daughter and son-in-law when they were students at Canandaigua Academy, where she said he attended every one of the Braves home games. She credited Calabrese with instilling pride and patriotism in them, noting her son-in-law is a captain in the U.S. Army and her daughter works as an orthopedic physician's assistant at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, working with soldiers.

"We'll never know how many kids you inspired or how many kids learned from you about pride and patriotism," Helming said.

The event was emceed by FLCC history professor Robert Brown, Ph.D., who is also a veteran's advocate and co-advisor to the college's student Veterans Club.

He recounted the mistreatment of World War I veterans, for whom Veterans Day was started under the original name of Armistice Day. He said the boys who went to war in Europe in 1917, and were feted with parades and speeches when they came home in 1919, were quickly forgotten, did not receive the Purple Hearts some earned until 1932 and never received the financial compensation they were promised, despite a march on Washington, D.C. by thousands. He also noted there is no national memorial in Washington honoring World War I veterans.

"After Pearl Harbor, World War I quickly became a footnote and the needs of the boys of 1917 were eclipsed and forgotten," Brown said. "On this Veterans Day of 2017, let's draw a valuable lesson from the war that gave birth to Veterans Day. Namely, that we must keep faith with those who have served and never permit today's heroes to become tomorrow's forgotten generation."

David Stock, president of the Veterans Club, talked about what it has to offer; and Will Maskrey, FLCC Student Corporation president, noted the college, for the fourth consecutive year, has been accredited as a military-friendly school.

'A Veteran's Prayer'

Korean War veteran Ralph Calabrese read his "A Veteran's Prayer" poem at Finger Lakes Community College Friday during a ceremony in honor of Veterans Day:

You called and I answered.

I gave my all.

I left my books, my desk, my machine, my store.

Yes, I even left my mom and dad, my wife and kids — my entire family.

I put my life on hold because you needed me.

I did not hesitate to answer your call.

I went to foreign lands without question on your command.

There too, I left many things behind — my foot, my leg, my arm, my eyes.

Yes, even my mind.

I left my life, my family, my happiness.

Now, I'm asking for your help, for me and mine.

Please dear God, don't let America turn its back on me.