Sheila Baker fought to hold back tears as she sat with her arm around the sculpture of a bronze World War II veteran at Hilton Head Island's Veterans Memorial Park on Monday morning.
It was her first Memorial Day without her husband, Bill, a retired U.S. Navy captain, but she could feel his presence because of the statue called "Poppies."
"It's overwhelming," she said, wiping away tears. "I can barely speak. It's such a special moment."
"Poppies" was dedicated Monday at the Island's 22nd annual Memorial Day ceremony, hosted by the group Bill Baker helped lead, the Hilton Head Council of the Navy League of the United States.
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Hundreds of visitors, families and veterans flooded the park for the ceremony to honor military members who died serving their country, "Poppies" and Bill Baker's vision to bring them all together.
Although he died unexpectedly in January, Bill Baker's family and friends' efforts to raise $65,000 for the sculpture means a tribute to his legacy will be sitting along an eight-foot granite bench greeting visitors of the memorial forever, said Dan Huber, Baker's friend and neighbor who helped secure the sculpture this spring.
"With this weather, he's smiling on us with that great big grin we know he has," teased Dick Foster, a Hilton Head Council of the Navy League board member.
The special ceremony included guest speakers Hilton Head Mayor David Bennett and Col. Peter Buck, commanding officer of Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort. The Hilton Head Choral Society also performed.
Bennett spoke of the flowers the statue is holding and the poem depicting Flanders fields that inspired them.
"I'm truly humbled by all the men and women who gave their lives for the freedoms we enjoy in the United States of America," he said. "('Poppies') is a fitting tribute to our veterans who made the ultimate sacrifice."
Buck also extolled the importance of remembering service members.
"It's a bittersweet day," Buck said. "What does Memorial Day mean? It means everything. As a nation we must never forget that our freedom is not free."
In Beaufort, hundreds marched in the annual Memorial Day parade throughout the city's historic district.
At the ceremony that followed at Beaufort National Cemetery, Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island commanding officer Brig. Gen. Terry Williams spoke about honoring those who have served and are serving.
In Sun City Hilton Head, residents paid tribute to those local veterans who died this past year.
The ceremony at Magnolia Hall featured Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, Marine Corps deputy commandant for aviation, and performances by the Sun City Singers.
On Hilton Head, Sheila Baker found herself overcome with emotion. Dozens of friends and Long Cove Club neighbors, including many veterans who donated to help buy "Poppies," stopped to see her with the statue after the ceremony.
"It's Bill's day today," someone said from afar.
Wiping more tears away, she smiled but shook her head.
"It's special to see so many people come out here, but not just for Bill or his vision, but all the veterans," she said.