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Descendents Reunion: heritage protected, honored

Family members visit the gravesite of Miles Burnham, the first Cape Canaveral Lighthouse keeper during the Descendents Reunion April 24. Accompanying them is Detachment 1, 45th Mission Support Group Director of Operations Sonny Witt (center in blue shirt). (U.S. Air Force photo/Nancy Watts)

Family members visit the gravesite of Miles Burnham, the first Cape Canaveral Lighthouse keeper during the Descendents Reunion April 24. Accompanying them is Detachment 1, 45th Mission Support Group Director of Operations Sonny Witt (center in blue shirt). (U.S. Air Force photo/Nancy Watts)

More than 150 Cape Canaveral descendents listen as 45th Space Wing Commander Col. Ed Wilson makes his opening remarks at the Descendents Reunion April 24 in the Cape Cafeteria. The reunion allows individuals who lived on Cape Canaveral an opportunity to return and visit with one another. (U.S. Air Force photo/Nancy Watts)

More than 150 Cape Canaveral descendents listen as 45th Space Wing Commander Col. Ed Wilson makes his opening remarks at the Descendents Reunion April 24 in the Cape Cafeteria. The reunion allows individuals who lived on Cape Canaveral an opportunity to return and visit with one another. (U.S. Air Force photo/Nancy Watts)

Canaveral Rose Koontz looks over her family tree with son Ed Lipsey at the Descendents Reunion in the Cape Cafeteria April 24. At 85, Canaveral Rose was one of the oldest reunion participants. (U.S. Air Force photo/Nancy Watts)

Canaveral Rose Koontz looks over her family tree with son Ed Lipsey at the Descendents Reunion in the Cape Cafeteria April 24. At 85, Canaveral Rose was one of the oldest reunion participants. (U.S. Air Force photo/Nancy Watts)

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, Fla. -- It's a familiar sight to people who work at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station: a small plot of land just past the gate, surrounded by a well-kept picket fence, with a proud tree in the middle.

As personnel drive past on their way to work, they might also notice something else. That bit of land is a graveyard, one of eight on Cape Canaveral that predates the space shuttle, the Snark, even an independent U.S. Air Force.

The annual Descendents Day Reunion was held April 24 at the Cape Cafeteria. The reunion allows family members whose ancestors lived on the Cape to return and pay their respects.

As the descendents arrived, they signed a guest log and were able to visit with old friends and perhaps make new ones. "This is your day," said Dr. Sonny Witt, director of operations for Detachtment 1, 45th Mission Support Group as he welcomed the families. "We are proud and honored to have you with us today."

The 45th Space Wing Commander also showed up to honor them.

"It's remarkable when you look back at how this piece of land has allowed us to do so much good for the country," said Col. Ed Wilson as he thanked the families for their sacrifices, "the Cape is really a national treasure in many ways."

One of the oldest descendents in attendance was Canaveral Rose Koontz. Born in 1925, her father was a homesteader on 100 acres of Cape land. She fondly remembers swimming
in the Atlantic Ocean in the shadow of the Cape Canaveral lighthouse, sometimes even surfing with the boards her brothers used to dry animal hides on.

"I also trapped animals and would bring them to my father to skin," she remembered, "I caught so many that eventually he told me to skin them myself!"

Although she moved from the Cape when she was 12 years old, Canaveral Rose has never forgotton her childhood here, and has even immortalized those memories in a poem, My Canaveral Lighthouse:


My Canaveral lighthouse,
keep shining for me
and bring back the mem'ries
of my used-to-be.
Like a guadrian angel
to ships out at sea,
you led me to dream-land
and watched over me.

At night on my pillow
I'd never count sheep.
I'd just count your beams
and go right off to sleep.
But the place of my childhood
is closed now to me.
So, Canaveral lighthouse,
keep shining for me.

I wonder, do the strangers
who now keep your light
love to watch while
you're sending
your beams through the night,
like the slow-turning spokes
of a gigantic wheel?
Do they watch with the
reverence that I used to feel?

Since the rockets and missiles
have come to your shore,
am I never to climb up
your stairs any more?
You are all that is left of
a fond memory.
So, Canaveral Lighthouse,
keep shining for me.


On the other end of the spectrum was 10-year old Leah Dunn, who was attending the reunion for the first time. "Today I learned a little about my family I didn't know before," she said. "It made me want to find out more about what they did here, and about the lighthouse."

One of the people who helped make it possible for Canaveral Rose and Leah Dunn to return to the Cape every year is Rose Wooley, a volunteer historian with the Cape Canaveral Lighthouse Foundation. She recalled how her supervisor had married a Cape descendent when she was an employee at Kennedy Space Center.

"I got to thinking how no one had done anything for the families and that it'd be nice to bring these people back," Ms. Wooley remembered.

The first reunion was held in 1992 with 53 participants. Now there are more than 150, with family trees that stretch back to the 19th century. Ms. Wooley also underscored the important
role the Air Force plays in maintaining the history of the Cape.

"We are their archive," she said. "As long as the Air Force is here, their heritage will be protected."