It was a solemn but exciting day for those who gathered at the Alexandria Veterans Affair (VA) clinic on Saturday, September 11.
The clinic was renamed to honor a former Alexandrian who was hailed as an American hero and a staunch supporter for veterans medical care - Max J. Beilke.
The ceremony drew a big crowd of about 400 veterans and their families, VA staff and officials, government leaders and distinguished speakers, including members of Congress and high ranking military brass.
Members of the Beilke family were also there for the unveiling of a plaque that designates the new name of the veterans care facility - the "Max J. Beilke Department of Veterans Affairs Outpatient Clinic."
The U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki gave the keynote address at Saturday's ceremony. A retired four-star general, Shinseki served as the chief of staff of the Army from 1999 to 2003.
Shinseki described Beilke as one of Minnesota's finest citizens and recalled the tragic events of September 11, 2001.
"In one terrible instant, the Army lost one of its staunchest proponents," Shinseki said, adding that Beilke died doing the work he loved.
"His was a service to something larger than himself," Shinseki said.
Sylvia "Suzy" Hess, Beilke's daughter, thanked Ray Beilke of Carlos, Max's cousin, for helping organize Saturday's tribute.
Hess described her father as a humble man who never complained about the long hours he spent helping veterans. She said that Beilke, if he'd been there, would have said he wasn't worthy of having a VA clinic named after him, that surely someone else would be more deserving.
Laura Paul, who worked with Beilke for 17 years in the Army Retirement Services, said that Beilke was widely regarded as the expert on veteran benefits. She said when developing new veteran programs, the government relied on his judgment and honesty.
Paul added that having a VA clinic in Beilke's home state and home town was appropriate. She said that Beilke, an avid sports fan, proudly displayed the Minnesota Twins' Home Run Hankie and the Minnesota Vikings' Touchdown Towel in his office and that whenever possible, he wore purple.
Barry Bahl, the director of the St. Cloud VA Medical Center, said that although the tragedy of 9-11 will live in people's hearts forever, the day was an opportunity to create a new positive memory of a life well lived. "Max served others and loved his family," Bahl said.
Larry Shellito, adjutant general of the Minnesota National Guard, said that Saturday's ceremony was not only an opportunity to honor Beilke but also his commitment of taking care of veterans.
Shellito said it was important to build upon Beilke's goals by making the Alexandria facility a role model of what can be done to help veterans nationwide.
U.S. Representative Collin Peterson praised Beilke's leadership role in creating Tri-care for Life, a Medicare supplement entitlement for Medicare-eligible military retirees and their dependents. Peterson said the program was a prime example of the government doing something right, delivering medical services at two-thirds of the cost it would take in the private sector.
"This is a great day for Alexandria, a great day for our country," Peterson said. "Thank you to the Beilke family for sharing Max with us."
U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar said that when the country asks its young men and women to serve in the military, it's vital for the government to give them the resources to do their job and to make sure there are no waiting lines for them to get care.
Franny Franken, the wife of U.S. Senator Al Franken, said that the Beilke family should be "rightfully proud" to have a VA clinic named for "a son of Alexandria who influenced the lives of so many."
Saturday's ceremony had many touching moments - a musical prelude from the Minnesota National Guard (MNG) Band; a welcome from Owen Miller of Alexandria (past commander of the American Legion and president of the Veterans Council); invocation from Lieutenant Colonel John Morris (chaplain with the MNG); a flag presentation; raising of the colors; the National Anthem; the Pledge of Allegiance; and the unveiling of the plaque and the new clinic sign.
After the ceremony, Shinseki met with the Beilke family and presented Beilke's wife, Lisa, with a book, Remembrance, which honors those who have made sacrifices for their country. Shinseki included a note, saying, "I would like you to have this momento about the men and women who have defended the nation, people that you and Max loved and served so well. We all still miss him and always will."