WITH about 300 veterans in Quincy last weekend for the eighth annual Fishing for Freedom, organizers know it may have become the largest event of its type in the nation.
Coordinator Randy Gengenbacher is more focused on making sure Fishing for Freedom is a joy for the veterans it serves -- a sincere thanks for their service and sacrifices. He also wants to see it become a tradition that continues.
Whether Quincy draws in more participants than a Fishing for Freedom near Fort Hood, Texas, is not the main consideration.
"We don't need any thanks. We're just trying to give back to our veterans for what they've done," Gengenbacher said.
Comments from the Fishing for Freedom participants tell how much the free weekend of events means to them.
"This is one of the few things I look forward to every year. Each time it's phenomenal," said Paul Adekoya, a Marine from the Peoria area. "It's amazing to see all of the support here given to veterans, and it's the one time each year I get to see the guys I served with."
Gengenbacher has been told by several veterans that the event saved their lives.
"A lot of them tell us they cannot believe that a small town like Quincy can put on an event like this," Gengenbacher said.
Although much of the weekend centers around fishing, the veterans are the reason for the celebration. Servers bring them food at a banquet. Vets are entertained at a concert. The Illinois Veterans Home has events for residents and visitors. They get several fishing options.
Volunteers who operate boats help make the weekend possible.
Bob Blessing of LaGrange, Mo., has been piloting his boat for the past seven years. A veteran, Blessing looks forward to the annual celebration.
"Being a Vietnam veteran, we were not welcomed home, and the first Fishing for Freedom banquet that I attended, the Vietnam veterans were recognized. Myself, along with the other Vietnam vets that were recognized, it was like a long time coming, and it has really meant a lot," Blessing told The Herald-Whig.
Yes, it will be something of an honor when Quincy's Fishing for Freedom is the largest in the nation. Still, it is the veterans who honor us with their presence.
The smiles on the face of tired, but happy veterans coming in on boats is more than adequate thanks.