Mount America: A foundation rises in Nottingham for veterans and families08/03/2021 12:53PM ● By Richard Gaw
By Richard L.
Nottingham resident George Turak’s mission to bring a memorial celebrating the fallen men and women of our nation’s armed forces to Oxford is a tale that begins many years ago, when he served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War in 1969-70.
In the jungle one early morning at about 5 a.m., Turak was wounded during a battle with the Vietcong. After he recovered from his injuries and returned to the United States, Turak, a Wilmington native, became the owner of the Turak Gallery of American Art in Philadelphia in 1973, which specializes in the purchase and sale of 19th and 20th century American art.
While he was positioning the gallery to become one of the finest galleries of its kind in the Philadelphia area, Turak championed the cause to honor the men and women of the U.S. military, and in 2008, began serving on the advisory council for the Campaign for the National Museum of the United States Army. He also became a volunteer for the Armed Services Council at the Union League in Philadelphia.
In 1999, Turak and his wife Michelle purchased the 127-acre Gray Horse Farm in Nottingham, a peaceful setting adjacent to the Octoraro River. In 2009, the Turak’s hosted Robert Daniels, who was then the head of the Union League Armed Services Council.
After admiring the expansive views from the farm, Daniels turned to Turak.
“George, you’ve been back from the war for 40 years. Don’t you think it’s time to put up a flag?” Daniels asked.
Soon, at the property’s highest elevation point, a 40-foot-tall flag pole proudly displayed the American flag, but the flag was merely the beginning.
On a visit to Washington, D.C., Turak met with a Colonel who had been involved with Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, an organization dedicated to the physical and emotional rehabilitation of disabled active military personnel through fly fishing.
“I told him, ‘We are surrounded by the Octororo River, and I have always wanted to help veterans and their families,’” Turak said.
A welcome sanctuary for veterans and their families
The veterans quickly arrived at the farm, equipped with fly fishing poles and their families. Eventually, the Turak farm became the home for a local U.S. Navy Sea Cadet Corps training area; the Turaks hosted Veterans Day celebrations with visiting dignitaries. Through the powerful network of military families and organizations, the word had gotten out: Gray Horse Farm transformed itself into a welcome sanctuary and ceremonial home for veterans and their families.
“Chris Clemens, who was a chopper pilot for the Philadelphia Police Department, would bring his wife and three kids to our Memorial Day Sunday,” Turak said. “On one visit here in 2014, his sons created a drawing of the hill with the flag on it as part of a school art project. On the back of the paper, the kids wrote, ‘Mount America.’
For the Turaks, it was time to collate all of these separate events, collaborations and initiatives under one umbrella. In 2019, the Mount America Foundation was formed.
A nonprofit 501 (c) (3) charitable organization, the Mount America Foundation serves veterans, active duty and National Guard/Reserve service members, first responders and their families – as well as honors the families of those who paid the ultimate price. Through its efforts and partnerships with other organizations, the Foundation provides programs that help reconcile the physical and emotional effects of combat to foster hope, understanding, and success.
Over the last few years, the Foundation has hosted soldiers from The Walter Reed Hospital for fishing outings on the river; as well as Gold Star families and dignitaries from nearly every branch of the U.S. Armed Forces. On Sept. 12, the Turaks will host a service that will honor the veterans and those who lost their lives in the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
At the very top of the hill at the Gray Horse Farm stand seven bronze Soldiers Crosses spaced 21 feet apart and four feet in height. Each memorial depicts the boots, helmet and weapon of a fallen soldier. Created by Vietnam War veteran, Purple Heart recipient and sculptor Andrew Chernak, the Soldiers Crosses memorials have been placed by the Foundation at military bases, veterans cemeteries and parks. (The Foundation also presents Gold Star Mothers plaques to honor mothers of veterans who have lost their lives in service that are also sculpted by Chernak.)
Recent proposal to West Nottingham Township
The Turaks are now in the early stages of what may establish Oxford as the location for the next permanent installment of a Soldiers Cross.
Two weeks ago, Turak approached West Nottingham Township Secretary-Treasurer and Supervisor Candace Miller and township Codes and Zoning Officer Terri Dugan with the idea to honor the local fallen men and women of the military by placing a Soldiers Cross at the Oxford Area Recreation Authority Park, located at 900 West Locust Street in Oxford.
“George came to the township a few months ago and said he would like to donate one of the monuments to the township to place in its park,” Miller said. “We do have a park in our township that is owned by Chester County, so when I told him that we would need approval through the county and wouldn’t know how long that would take for approval, I also said that West Nottingham is a member municipality in the Oxford Area Recreation Authority, and we have a beautiful park on West Locust Street, where it would benefit all of the residents in the Oxford area and be in a central location.
“George went to the park and came back and told us he thought the location would be fantastic.”
Miller and Dugan took the proposal to the Oxford Area Recreation Authority Board of Directors in June, where it was accepted.
“We then let George know and he said, ‘Okay. I am going to start fundraising and raise money to get this project underway.”
For a contribution of $1,000, each donor will have his or her name, the name of their business or the name of a fallen friend or family member inscribed on the bronze memorial – personally inscribed by Chernak on the memorial’s helmet. Each helmet may contain as many as 10 names; so far, Houser’s Family Auto Center in Nottingham has contributed $1,000 toward the memorial.
Turak said that he wants the installation and dedication of the memorial to occur before the 250th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 2026.
The dedication of the Turaks to do the work necessary to provide veterans and their families with activities, comfort and reassurance can best be summarized by the story of a young nurse, who when she first arrived at the Gray Horse Farm was traumatized by the effects of the many soldiers she saw pass away in front of her on the operating table. While her trauma is still very real, Turak said that he and Michelle are delighted by the connection the nurse has made to the farms’ many cats.
“She came to us in a shell, and to see her now, petting and talking to the cats, smiling and opening up to people, means the world to us,” Turak said. “Having been a wounded solider and in a hospital for three months, I understand what she has seen, felt and experienced.
“Being allowed to give back to people who have given so much of themselves – and to honor those who have died on the battlefield and their families – means so much to us, but more to the people we have met and continue to meet.”
To learn more about the Mount America Foundation and to make a contribution to the Soldiers Cross memorial at the Oxford Area Recreation Authority Park, visit www.mountamerica.org.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected]