EAST HELENA — Through decades of living in the Helena and East Helena areas, Richard E. “Dick” Stafford made an impression on people across the community. On Saturday, dozens gathered at East Helena’s Servicemembers' Monument to honor his memory.
“It was great,” said Morgen Stafford, Stafford’s son. “I was a little surprised when I pulled up and saw a line of cars all the way down the curb.”
Stafford, a U.S. Navy veteran who landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day, passed away last month, at the age of 94. During Saturday’s ceremony, he received full military honors, including three rifle volleys and the playing of "Taps." U.S. Navy representatives folded a U.S. flag and presented it to Morgen Stafford.
Retired Major General Gene Prendergast, a close friend of Stafford’s, shared stories about his life and service.
Stafford, who was too young to join the military when World War II began, made several efforts to hide his age in order to enlist. Prendergast said he also had to hide his colorblindness, by memorizing a book used for vision tests.
Eventually, Stafford was assigned to the Naval Construction Battalions, better known as the Seabees. His father, Opie Stafford, had served in World War I, then reenlisted in the Navy to serve with his son.
During the invasion of Normandy, Stafford and his fellow crew members built barges to transport soldiers and equipment onto the beaches. Several days after landing at Omaha Beach, he received a serious shrapnel injury to his left eye, eventually earning the Purple Heart.
After the war, Stafford and his wife Shirley eventually settled in the Helena area, where he became a longtime Spanish and English teacher at Helena High School. He also spent several years as a professor of Spanish at Carroll College.
“He was a hero and a patriot and he’s a person that served his country,” said Prendergast. “He was a mentor to many people, not only through the military side, but also through his teaching.”
Stafford eventually shared his wartime experiences in the media – both locally and nationally. He was a guest on programs like KTVH’s “The Dunwell Report,” and Tom Brokaw included a letter from him in his book “An Album of Memories,” which collected reminiscences from World War II veterans.
Stafford also became well-known for appearing in uniform at nearly all veterans’ parades in the Helena area.
Those taking part in Saturday’s ceremony said they are proud to show Stafford’s service is remembered.
“Whether it’s Dick Stafford or whether it’s someone who just came back from Afghanistan or Iraq, we cannot forget our veterans,” Prendergast said.
“He was part of the Greatest Generation,” said Morgen Stafford. “He lived that, he breathed that, and he believed that.”
East Helena leaders are planning another way to remember Stafford: They will be putting up a permanent exhibit in City Hall showing some of Stafford’s military artifacts, along with his father’s.
“Mainly for the kids, so when they go on field trips, they can look up and see what he and his dad did,” said Prendergast.