Jennifer Bryant was 16 when her grandmother died in 1991. As she helped her grandfather choose family photographs for the funeral visitation, she noticed a stack of small pictures and letters on the top of his dresser.
Kenneth and Dale Johnson were married for 46 years and raised three children in Webster County, where he worked as an underground coal miner.
The small stack of correspondence represented much of their first two years of marriage, which they spent apart. He was an Army machine-gunner during World War II and fought on the front lines in Europe, including the Battle of the Bulge.
One picture caught Bryant’s eye. It showed her grandparents on their wedding day, kissing along a roadside. Two days later, he left for the Army.
“He told me to just put that picture back in the stack; we weren’t going to use any of those at the funeral home and I didn’t need to mess with them,” she said. “Then he turned around and walked out of the room, and I put that picture in the back pocket of my jeans.”
A couple of days after Dale Johnson’s funeral, her husband burned all of those letters and pictures. The war and separation had been painful for them, he told Bryant later, “and those memories don’t need to be in this house anymore.”
Johnson never knew that Bryant saved the one photo. For most of the two decades since then, it has stood framed in a curio cabinet that had belonged to her grandmother.
When Bryant showed the picture to her friend Jay McChord last year and told him the story behind it, he got an idea: why not collect veterans’ love stories and pictures from across the generations and publish them in an inspirational book?
McChord and Bryant have launched a fund-raising campaign at Kickstarter.com to publish A Veteran’s Legacy … in Love. Their goal is to raise $30,013 by July 19 on the crowd-funding Web site to create an online platform for people to submit their stories and photos, and to produce the book. Unless they reach the goal, they won’t receive any of the Kickstarter pledges.
“I think this project and book can preserve some powerful stories and offer encouragement for what sacrifice and commitment look like,” McChord said. He envisions the book as a combination of inspirational love stories and a place where veterans may record their love stories for posterity.
Bryant and McChord already have the art for their book’s cover: McChord, a former University of Kentucky art major, made a drawing of the picture of Bryant’s grandparents kissing on their wedding day.
Much of McChord’s artistic work in recent years has focused on veterans. Most pieces are drawings of snapshots that soldiers took of themselves and friends while in service.
McChord, who is stepping down this year after eight years as the 9th District representative on Lexington’s Urban County Council, wasn’t in the military, and his family doesn’t have a strong military tradition.
But McChord said he has always loved military history, and he is inspired by veterans’ service and stories, especially those who fought in World War II. He just returned from a “Victory in Europe” trip organized by the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, which included tours of sites in London, Paris and the beaches of Normandy. An 86-year-old American who fought in Normandy was their guide there.
In 2010, McChord published a book, A Veteran’s Legacy: Field Kit Journal (Gracie Mae Publications, $15). Illustrated with his drawings, the book helps veterans record the stories of their military service based on questions McChord developed from the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project.
McChord sees these book projects as a way to honor those who served, preserve their stories so future generations can learn from them and offer a measure of healing, he said.
Bryant said it would be a shame if more stories of love, commitment and persistence disappeared in time, as her grandparents’ story did.
“Our children are not going to know the true stories of these veterans unless we tell them,” she said. “These people are here now, and we need to capture these stories.”