Published October 31, 2019
By MAUREEN DOHERTY
NORTH READING — Compassion for the town’s veterans and a dogged determination to work on their behalf has earned statewide recognition for Director of Veterans’ Services Susan Magner.
Magner is known to go to the mat to assist veterans and their qualified family members in obtaining the benefits they’ve earned, the services they require, and the recognition they deserve for the sacrifices they’ve made while serving their country.
At the state convention of veterans agents last week in Leominster, Magner’s dedication was recognized when she was named the 2019 Veterans’ Services Officer of the Year by the state Department of Veterans’ Services (DVS). Making the presentation, which was a complete surprise to Magner, was Massachusetts Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs Francisco Urena. The inscription on the base of the trophy she received reads: “In recognition of outstanding services provided to the veterans of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the DVS presents the 2019 Veterans’ Services Officer of the Year to Susan Magner.”
The trophy itself is a replica of a female warrior and Magner noted that all of this year’s awards at various levels had been presented to women.
Secretary Urena has attended many of the programs Magner has organized over the years on behalf of veterans, including the annual Veterans’ Recognition Dinner to which veterans and their families from throughout the region, who represent all periods of military service, are invited to attend each fall. This year, she has arranged to hold the dinner on Veterans’ Day at a new venue, the Tewksbury Country Club. Tickets for veterans and a dependent are free. Tickets for other community members are $25 (see details on obtaining tickets elsewhere in today’s Transcript).
Urena was also a guest speaker during the impressive ceremonies for The Wall That Heals in mid-August, held at Ipswich River Park and organized by Magner and her Veterans Event Committee, in cooperation with the Parks and Recreation Department. During the Wall’s visit to town, all veterans of the Vietnam era were invited to receive the welcome home that was overlooked half a century ago by a nation divided by that divisive conflict. Hundreds attended the different ceremonies each of the four days and thousands visited the three-quarter replica of the Vietnam Wall and its mobile education center, both of which were set up in park’s meadow. Both were illuminated and open 24/7 as the park was transformed into a place of reflection and healing from the Wall’s arrival on Tuesday evening until it was dismantled the following Sunday afternoon. The town was one of only two communities in the state to host The Wall That Heals this year.
The Select Board recognized Magner’s accomplishments Monday night and numerous department heads also attended the meeting to offer their congratulations to her.
“The board, through its discussions and budget process recognizes that we have excellent department heads in all of our departments but we’re especially excited this evening to be discussing a third party, the Department of Veterans’ Services, recognizing one of our department heads, Susan Magner,” Town Administrator Michael Gilleberto told the board.
The T.A. said Magner began her tenure with the town 12 years ago as a secretary to the Town Clerk in October of 2007 and then was hired as Director of Veterans’ Services for the town in February of 2010. Her first big event was commemorating the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
“She is continually moving forward, at times quietly in background helping all of our veterans with their needs, whether that be paying their bills, paying their rent, getting access to quality health care and facilitating their interaction not just with the state government but with the federal government through our V.A. facilities. She has spent countless hours in both Bedford and Jamaica Plain helping our veterans to the point where on a couple of occasions I’ve gotten letters from folks outside of North Reading who have said, ‘Hey, I ran into Susan and she gave me some great advice,” Gilleberto said. “We’re really fortunate with the work that Susan has done.”
“Most recently, Susan put quite a bit of effort into not only coordinating the visit of The Wall That Heals but also securing it coming here, and that was all done in the background by talking to the various departments here,” he said. This required the coordination with Parks and Recreation Operations Manager Maureen Stevens, Recreation Director Lynne Clemens and Parks Director Marty Tilton once it was confirmed last January that the town was approved to host it.
Department heads and employees on hand to congratulate Magner included Stevens, Clemens, Al DiSalvo of the building department, who is a member of the town’s Veterans Event Committee, as well as Youth Services Director Jen Ford, Elder Services Director Mary Prenney, Town Clerk Barbara Stats and Amy DiChiara, executive administrative assistant to the DPW.
“Talk about a perfect venue for this wall, it was like it was made for it. You had the vision and you must have taken measurements because it fit perfect. The attendance was fantastic,” commented Select Board member Stephen O’Leary. He added that he and his wife Sue “went down there virtually every night… it was absolutely fantastic. You had the vision. Some of us were a little skeptical at first, but I am glad you talked us into it.”
Select Board member Rich Wallner said he has known Magner for many years through the various committees they’ve worked on together and he noted that she “has always been a great advocate for the vets and the disabled in town, and her heart is in the right place.”
Wallner added, “I was honored to speak at the Wall and it was very impressive and it was emotional for me afterward. I have always appreciate what you have done.”
“Now granted, I live across the street so I didn’t have far to go, but I was over there every night and it was really nice during the day, but it was absolutely stunning at night when it was all lit up and glowed in the dark,” Select Board member Andrew Schultz said.
Schultz, whose father is a Vietnam veteran, added, “It was an amazing event for a lot of reasons. I found his bunk mate, who passed away in Vietnam, on the Wall.”
Now that he has a son who is currently a high school senior, Schultz said seeing the names on the wall really “hit home” because “back then kids that age were six months away from getting on a plane going across the ocean.” He also witnessed the arrival of the wall in its tractor trailer unit, by police and motorcycle escort, which passed under an American flag suspended by two ladder fire trucks at IRP.
“The faces, and tears on the veterans as that truck came by really struck me. It was very cathartic and well done. I can’t say enough superlatives,” Schultz added.
“We are just so fortunate to have you,” Select Board member Liane Gonzalez told Magner. “I could cry right now thinking about that night. I was there at night doing a shift. I was so honored to be there. Once you were there, there was just a feeling in the air. It was awesome. I wish we could have kept it.”
Gonzalez added that she noticed the maiden name of her neighbor on the Wall and told her about it. It turned out to be her neighbor’s uncle and she brought her kids down to see it. “They were so excited to find that. I wanted to thank you so much. It was a wonderful thing for our town,” she said.
Select Board Chairwoman Kate Manupelli said she wanted to let Magner know “what a valuable employee you are.” She noted that it was amazing to be in attendance during the delivery of the Wall to the park “to see how stirred people were… and to know you brought it here and you coordinated that effort. It was amazing.”
“You wear your heart on your sleeve and you’re always bringing to us what this population that you serve directly needs, to help bring it to our attention. From the littlest thing that you do, like the coins that you give to service members who are about to go away to give them a commemorative piece from us, as a community, to know that we are thinking of them…to the monumental… It was tremendous. We are so grateful that you are here and working on these efforts,” Manupelli said.
Magner said while she did have the vision to bring the wall here for many years she is the first to admit that it could not be done alone. “It is a village that makes it happen and I had my right arm here in Maureen (Stevens) and Marty (Tilton), and Larry (Ready) for putting up with me and my long hours.”
She gave credit to all volunteers, particularly the youths. “The kids really took the time to work the educational piece of it…the kids want to learn. My nephew came back every day between shifts from work, helping the elders out (to the wall) in their wheelchairs and learning their stories. That’s what it’s all about. We don’t want the history to go away,” Magner said.
“I have the pleasure of working with Sue almost every day. She did a great job with the Wall and she does a great job at the parades. But she does a great job every day working with the people that she truly cares about, is passionate about and she gets the job done. It is an honor working with this woman,” Mary Prenney said.
Maureen Stevens, who previously worked in the veterans office assisting the prior veterans’ agent, the late Tim Callahan, for 12 years, said Magner is a great asset who “makes a huge difference in people’s lives every single day” by making sure they’re not homeless, they’re fed, and that their medical needs are met.
Recreation Director Lynne Clemens added, “We shared a wall for many years with veterans and now she is down the hall, but just seeing the day to day people that really count on her; she is their life thread and without her there are a lot of souls out there that wouldn’t be around right now. She really is (their) emotional support and boy does she dig deep looking for the services. I’m a mother of a son who is serving right now and I’m so appreciative of everything she does.”