Touched by a bear on Route 73

Posted: July 12, 2007

I am deeply touched by a cartoony bear as I stand on Route 73 in Boyertown, in the rain, during the week of Independence Day, watching water drip from the saluting figure's face.

The bear's name tag says "Zimmerman," but the plaque reads ". . . May this 'Military Bear' honor all Boyertown veterans, although separated by generations, shared a common undeniable goal. . . ."

Zimmerman is Army Pfc. Travis C., a 19-year-old Boyertown High School graduate killed April 22, 2006, by an improvised explosive device while on combat reconnaissance operations in Baghdad.

This bear is one of 50 Boyertown bears - a public-art idea adopted by numerous cities since a 1988 fiberglass cow exhibit in Switzerland.

I've seen the recent zoo animals in Chestnut Hill and Moorestown's Nippers, so seeing the Boyertown bears on my route from the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge into Berks County doesn't get me to pull over.

Until the Fairview Cemetery.

There I see a bear in military camo, standing upright in an erect salute. I have photographed many memorial ceremonies and monuments, but this one got to me.

I quickly learn that after Zimmerman's death, his father, Lloyd Zimmerman, discovered among his son's belongings the front page of a newspaper the day after 9/11.

"That must be when he resolved to make a stand," his father told the Reading Eagle.

Zimmerman's Class of 2005 raised the money for his bear, honoring all Boyertown-area men and women who died in service to their country. It was completed in time for the town's fifth-anniversary commemoration of 9/11 last September and installed on Memorial Day.

Having seen the hand-painted roadside billboards with the Birds of Paradise hex signs on previous road trips, I must detour off 73 to visit the Kutztown Folk Festival.

I figure it's a big deal when bright yellow temporary "no parking" signs line residential streets for blocks before the grounds. Then I see the woman with the Amish brimmed straw hat on the motorized scooter holding $3 parking signs and pointing right at me.

Kathy Gilmore, along with Fern Kulp, is "working" right up against the festival's perimeter fence - actually, the side yard of Mabel Kunkel's house, where since 1951, when the festival began, cars have parked.

"We thought with the rain we'd be slow today, so we sent her away to play bingo," Gilmore says of "Mom." Technically, that would be mother-in-law. Or ex-mother-in-law. Gilmore married one of Kunkel's sons in 1969.

"That's when I came into the parking picture," she says. They are long divorced, "but I still call her Mom."

Gilmore is also friends with her ex-husband's girlfriend of 14 years - Kulp. The two women work the lot together during the festival's two-week run (which ended Sunday).

That first year, the Kunkels charged 50 cents a car and their three children were soon selling lemonade (5 cents a cup) alongside the parents. A son earned enough one summer to pay for a semester of college.


Contact staff photographer Tom Gralish at 215-854-2950 or tgralish@phillynews.com.

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