Red Hook Then & Now: Oak Cookingham

“Now the trumpet summons us again — not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are — but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, ‘rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation’ — a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.”
— President John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961

Oak Cookingham (right) leads fellow veterans at the 1987 Memorial Day commemoration ceremonies at the Red Hook Memorial Park.

Oak Cookingham is gone and Memorial Day won’t be the same without him. Ramrod straight and trim in his Eisenhower jacket, he marched up Broadway in the parade, and you couldn’t help but feel awed as he laid a memorial wreath, stood at attention one more time, saluted the flag.

Born on Christmas Day 1916, this lifelong Red Hook farmer, family man, business and civic leader epitomized the so-called “Greatest Generation.” Briefly the Poughkeepsie Journal noted on his passing September 2011, at 94, “He served in the United States Army during World War II, from 1943 to 1945, in the Spearhead 3rd Armored Division, earning the Bronze Star.”

For the record, the Bronze Star is the Army’s fourth-highest combat award for bravery. And of the 15 U.S. armored divisions in Europe in World War II, the 3rd Armored Division saw the most combat, inflicted the most damage, and took the most casualties.

Red Hook continues to honor its community heroes on Memorial Day with a parade, yes, but really with a deeply stirring morning of shared memory, of honor and respect, of patriotic song and the bark of guns.

And with silence, too.

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