Friends, family prepare to honor veterans advocate Gary Lillie over Memorial Day weekend
Gary Lillie first organized an annual watch fire more than a decade ago on the Sunday before Memorial Day to honor veterans and active-duty soldiers from Michigan who had died during the past year.
Hundreds of American flags — last year it was about 250 — are burned in memory of the dead and the missing in action. It is a somber event, honoring the men and women who have given their lives for their country.
On Sunday night, one of those flags will burn for Lillie.
Gene Lillie still remembers a former colleague of his who was a Vietnam War veteran, just like Gary. A decorated soldier, the man could not move past the fact that two young men under his command died during an ambush. He carried it with him day after day, until Gene Lillie introduced him to Gary.
“Afterward, he said Gary led him down the path to sanity and got all sorts of help for him,” Gene Lillie said. “That’s just the way Gary was.
“He told me Gary saved his life. I don’t think that was the only case like that.”
Gary Lillie was 70 years old when he was struck and killed by a car last Aug. 4 while walking on Marshall Road near his Scio Township home. Kevin Warren is accused of hitting Gary Lillie while driving drunk and is facing criminal charges in the case. He’s scheduled to return to court for a final pretrial hearing on June 21.
Despite the fact that the brothers got together for lunch about once a month, Gene Lillie said he wasn’t aware of just how much Gary worked for others until after his death. Gary rounded up feral cats near his home and paid to get them spayed or neutered. He spread butterfly weed seed along the rural roads he often walked. He helped organize a fund to get a proper headstone for a Revolutionary War colonel who was buried in York Township.
As Gene Lillie learned of all the things Gary had been doing in the community, he was blown away. He still thinks about the three-month period after his wife passed away when Gary called him every day just to check on him and see how he was doing. It’s something Gene Lillie now carries with him every day, following his brother’s example.
“What I do is just so minute in comparison. Believe me, I’m not trying to out do him, it’s not a competition,” he said. “I just don’t know how he did it all.”
As Memorial Day approaches, Gary Lillie's friends are facing the somber prospect of honoring the man they loved on one of his favorite days.
The watch fire serves a dual purpose. Not only are flags properly destroyed in honor of deceased veterans and soldiers, but it symbolically shows the way home to prisoners of war and those who are still missing in action. John Kinzinger, who has taken over from Gary Lillie as organizer of the event, said watch fires were originally used during the nights following battles to help wounded and missing soldiers find their way back to friendly lines.
Starting at 6 p.m. Sunday at the Washtenaw County Vietnam Veterans Memorial, 7200 S. Huron River Drive in Ypsilanti Township, veterans and their families, friends and other members of the public will gather to socialize and grill hot dogs. Once the sun sets, flags are placed on the fire.
The ceremony is held at the memorial that Gary Lillie helped create — and the place where his ashes were dedicated.
When the flag is burned in honor of Gary, it’ll be turning to ashes in front of the local veterans whom he considered family.
“He was never married and lived by himself, but all he had to do was call any of us and make us laugh a little bit,” Kinzinger said. “He got me into a lot of stuff just by calling me.”
Memorial Day was a special holiday to Gary Lillie, as it is for all veterans. However, he might have prized it even more than most, according to Lynn Liston.
A typical Memorial Day weekend would see him working in Alma to sell raffle tickets at the Highland Games that raised money for the St. Andrews Society of Detroit and started an annual box-packing event to send supplies to troops, Liston said. After that came the watch fire and the next day was spent participating in a parade and more memorial services at the memorial, she said.
“This coming Memorial Day will be very sad for me and our friends because Gary won’t be there with us and his veteran brothers to take part in these activities that meant so much to him and that reflected in his dedication to the causes of veterans everywhere,” she said.
One of the toughest experiences for veterans is coming home from combat to friends, family members and fellow citizens who can’t understand what they’ve been through.
Mike Eadie said Gary Lillie always worked to make sure he would be at least one face that veterans of all wars, from Korea to Iraq and Afghanistan, could know and respect. Eadie said Gary Lillie dealt with survivor’s guilt after returning from Vietnam and went through a really tough period trying to deal with the fact that he had lived when so many others didn’t.
Eadie said Gary Lillie eventually realized that he still had something all those men had died to save — his freedom and his country. That moment was the catalyst for his actions working with veterans, Eadie said.
“He dedicated himself to make sure the guys who came home had someone to deal with,” he said.
One of those men was Pat Lumbowski. Despite an age difference between the two men, they bonded over their experiences and Gary Lillie brought Lumbowski along to a few networking events before a rally to support the troops on the University of Michigan’s campus.
The memory of singing the Star Spangled Banner on the steps of the Ross Business School still leaves Lumbowski choked up. From then on, Lumbowski became active in the veterans community.
“My job with Gary was to make sure he never had a peaceful moment,” Lumbowski said, laughing. “I went out of my way to drive him nuts and it worked.”
Speaking from his Lyndon Township home on Thursday, Gene Lillie said he still feels guilt for not going to the Memorial Day services last year after being invited by his brother. Volunteering commitments kept him at home, but his brother — and the generous way he lived his life — has been in his thoughts even more than usual.
When he thinks about Gary, his thoughts don’t go to the night last August when he died or any minor differences the brothers had over the years. Instead, he marvels at Gary Lillie’s compassion for others, his persistent optimism and the way he lived his life with a kind of quiet leadership Gene Lillie never even noticed until it was gone.
“He is an example for the rest of us,” he said, admitting there were tears in his eyes. “I miss my brother tremendously and I shall try to do better in my life because of his example.”