Audubon's Fourth honors a favorite son

Staff Sgt. Joseph M. Weiglein was killed in Iraq.

Posted: July 03, 2007

For 25 years, Michael and Ellen Weiglein helped organize Audubon's Independence Day events, and their three children grew up as regulars at the parade in the small South Jersey town.

Tomorrow, their middle child won't be there - but he will be remembered by his hometown.

Staff Sgt. Joseph M. Weiglein, at the age of 31, was killed by an explosion in Iraq on May 29. Flags will be flown in his honor tomorrow, and a large float carrying Audubon schoolchildren will commemorate him. Tributes to the fallen soldier are included in the day-long holiday celebration's program book.

After the parade, his family will be given a check for thousands of dollars contributed in his memory, money that is headed for a scholarship in his name.

Ellen Weiglein said she isn't up to being in the parade this year, but she and her husband will attend with the rest of their community.

"From the bottom of our hearts, we thank all the people in Audubon for all the help and all the prayers," she said.

In a town with no shortage of patriotism - Audubon is proud to have been the home of three Congressional Medal of Honor recipients - people are very mindful of Weiglein's sacrifice and his family's loss.

"We felt it important that he be especially remembered," said Mayor Anthony Pugliese.

In Audubon, there's no better day for that kind of remembrance than the Fourth of July, and no better place than the parade.

"Everyone comes here for the Fourth of July," said Mary Beth Zimmerman, a member of Audubon Citizen's Celebration Committee. "This town is so incredibly tiny. Everyone either stays here or comes back here."

This year, "I think we're going to see a lot more patriotic support, more red, white and blue," Zimmerman said. "We're already seeing more banners going out."

And flags. Last month, schoolchildren and other volunteers planted flags all over town before Weiglein's funeral procession to show their support.

While Weiglein was in Iraq, students at the Haviland Avenue Elementary School sent him and his Army buddies letters and Tastykakes. When he came to visit them in January, he got a rock star's welcome.

"One of his beliefs was, no man ever stood taller than when he stoops to talk to children," said Steve Shirk, an Audubon resident who was involved the flags project.

For that reason, Shirk said, he plans to have children ride the float he's organizing in Weiglein's honor.

Area businesses have donated the truck and decorations, and Tastykake is kicking in a lot of baked goods to be given out on the Fourth, Shirk said. Weiglein's death has inspired an outpouring of sympathy and support.

"I've worked on a lot of things in my life," said Shirk, a SEPTA driver. "I've never worked on anything that I never got a single 'no.' "

The Audubon Fathers Association saw the same kind of outpouring when they set out to raise money for buses to take Weiglein's family and friends to his burial in Virginia last month. They had that money within a matter of hours, but the donations kept coming.

After tomorrow's parade, the association plans to present Weiglein's family with several thousand dollars to use as they see fit. His mother said the money will be placed in a scholarship fund in her son's name.

This year, the New Jersey Council of the Knights of Columbus gave a $1,000 scholarship in Weiglein's memory to Audubon student David Meyer, according to schools Superintendent Don Borden.

Weiglein's family, including his widow, Jennifer, and his friends have started the SSG Joseph M. Weiglein Memorial Foundation to raise money for a permanent scholarship.

"Joe asked if anything happened to him, he wanted this scholarship fund," said Michael Nolan, a friend since childhood who walked with Weiglein in many Fourth of July parades.

Weiglein was not the most zealous scholar in high school, but the Army changed him, said the friend.

"He really became a leader and an educator in the Army for all the soldiers," Nolan said.

In fact, Weiglein planned to become a teacher when he ended his Army service, said the friend, who is also a teacher.

A beef-and-beer fund-raiser is planned for Aug. 25 at the Knights of Columbus post in Haddon Heights. Nolan said organizers already have several thousand dollars in contributions and they're hoping reach to $25,000.

If Weiglein were here to see all that is going on in his name this Fourth of July, he might feel a bit bashful, Nolan said.

"He'd probably be like, 'I can't believe all this is for me.' He'd probably laugh."

"He was a heck of a guy," Nolan said. "A heck of a friend."


Contact Rita Giordano at 856-779-3841 or rgiordano@phillynews.com.

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