About 100 local officials, first responders and St. Petersburg residents gathered under the oak trees surrounding the Veteran’s Memorial at Williams Park on a picturesque November morning to offer their sincere gratitude to the area’s veterans – three in particular.
The eighth annual Veterans Day celebration took place in downtown St. Pete early Thursday, marking one of the final events on Mayor Rick Kriseman’s “faring well” tour. Kriseman started the celebration the year he took office, and the moment was bittersweet as it was the last time he will present the Honored Veteran Award to three outstanding local veterans that exemplify the meaning of service.
“This celebration has never been about me, and I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to see the largest crowd I think we’ve ever had for this ceremony,” said the outgoing mayor before presenting the awards. “My hope was that this would become a tradition in our city, because those who served our country in uniform deserve our respect and our recognition.
“I believe we’ve achieved our goal.”
The first person to receive the Honored Veteran Award was also the oldest. Rear Admiral Sidney “Sid” Vaughn served as a Coast Guardsman for 38 years. Upon retirement in 1984, Vaughn was awarded the Legion of Merit medal for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services to the United States.
Vaughn graduated from St. Pete High in 1944 and was inducted into its Hall of Fame in 2000. At the age of 92, Vaughn completed the Skyway 10K in March 2020 as the race’s oldest participant. He hopes to once again conquer the Skyway 10K in 2022.
Vaughn, who turns 94 Saturday, began by saying how he was amazed at the size of the crowd. He joked that he thought it might just be the mayor, his fellow honorees and himself in attendance.
Then the emotion flowed.
“Mr. Mayor, it’s great to be honored,” began Vaughn, his voice cracking. “But it’s even greater to be honored by your hometown.”
Vaughn relayed how in 1968, he was named Commanding Officer of the new Coast Guard cutter Steadfast that docked in Bayboro Harbor. Only half-joking, Vaughn said it was a privilege to then be named as an honorary member of the St. Pete Navy.
“To my knowledge, I’m still a member,” he said as the tears began to stream. “And I look forward to completing that tour.
“I think this ceremony today probably does complete that tour after 53 years.”
The next honoree was Captain Antonio “Tony” Sanpere, who served in the U.S. Army from 1960 to 1968, both in Germany and Vietnam. Sanpere earned multiple Purple Heart medals, two Bronze Stars with Valor and a national defense medal for his service during the Cold War.
After his service, Sanpere earned an engineering degree and an MBA. An avid sailor, he recently represented the United States at the Hansa World Championship in Palermo, Italy.
Sanpere told the crowd his journey began in Barcelona, Spain, where he was born. At the time, the tyrannical dictator Francisco Franco ruled Spain. Sanpere’s family fled his home country, and he joined the army shortly after becoming a resident of the United States.
“I figured I could give back to the country for bringing me in and accepting me into the country,” said Sanpere.
Sanpere said he successfully managed to avoid being killed by the enemy in Vietnam but was still forced to retire after sustaining multiple injuries. After a stint in the Virgin Islands, his love of sailing brought him to St. Pete.
“I’ve been accepted by the city, and I’d like to give back to the city as much I can,” said Sanpere. “Thank you.”
The final recipient of the Honored Veteran Award was Master Sargent Catherine Washington. Washington joined the U.S. Army Reserve in 1974, embarking on a 30-year career. She was twice awarded the Army Commendation Medal for Meritorious Service and earned the Army Achievement Medal three times. In 2008, Washington received one of the most prestigious military honors – The Legion of Merit Award.
Washington’s service continued long after her military career, as she was the first African American woman to join the St. Petersburg Fire Department. She then enjoyed a 26-year career as a Firefighter/EMT. Her daughter would later join her on the SPFD, becoming the first and only mother and daughter to serve in the department.
Washington made it a point to honor all of the people who have accompanied her on her journey through life.
“I don’t know if anybody realized that’s what we do when we come into this world – we have a life journey,” she said. “And my life journey has been touched by so many people.”
Washington thanked her mother, daughter, family, her firefighter and church family, and last but not least, her Army Reserve family.
“Part of this is each and every one of ya’ll’s award.”
In addition to Kriseman, a myriad of local leaders were on hand to honor the occasion. Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomlin sat next to Kriseman, and Mayor-elect Ken Welch was present for what Kriseman called his first public appearance since winning the election last week. Representative Michelle Rayner and former representative and mayoral candidate Wengay Newton were spotted in the crowd, as was County Commissioner Rene Flowers. St. Pete City Council was well represented by councilmembers Gina Driscoll, Deborah Figgs-Sanders and Ed Montanari.
Montanari, also an Air Force veteran, explained that those who have served still remember the faces and the voices of their fallen comrades, tell their stories and support their families.
“Our country honors every patron that places duty and country before their own lives,” said Montanari. “What veterans have given our county is beyond the power to fully repay.”