Since 1776, the Fourth of July has been a day to celebrate what it means to be American, but for each citizen that word can mean something different.
“It’s great to shoot off fireworks and eat hot dogs, but it’s a recurrence to the principles of America,” said Kurt Smith, the interpreter for the young Thomas Jefferson at Colonial Williamsburg.
Refueling the American spirit
For Smith, Independence Day is a workday unlike the other 365 days.
Each Fourth of July, Smith dons his britches and prepares to spend the day as one of the founders of the revolution. For him, the job is an honor, and the holiday only exemplifies what Thomas Jefferson means to America.
His day will begin with the first of three readings of the Declaration of Independence, authored by Jefferson, in Capitol Circle in Colonial Williamsburg. He will then spend the day speaking with guests in the colonial area about the history of Fourth of July and Jefferson’s role.
“We are part of an experiment that’s been going on for 242 years,” he said. “In this country, the individual is sovereign, we are individually kings and queens. We all wear crowns in America.”
Smith will be on his feet from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. for the holiday, from reading the Declaration of Independence to speaking with guests to taking part in the procession along Duke of Gloucester Street.
But for him, every Fourth of July creates a unique atmosphere to tell people about America’s independence through the eyes of one of the fathers of the revolution.
“It’s a spiritual American awakening in each and every one of us,” he said. “In Colonial Williamsburg, there’s something unique here that can ignite and refuel Americans. I’m lucky to have the honor to help Americans remember why this country is great.”
At the end of the night, Smith will finally relax and celebrate the holiday in his own way — by popping open a bottle of Jefferson’s favorite wine.
A new American
For most Americans, it’s typical to grow up learning about Jefferson and the American Revolution, but for Ylber Zelli, an immigrant from Albania, the history of the United States’ freedom was something he learned on his own.
Zelli, owner of A to Z Renovations LLC., came to the United States in 2013, but this year will be his first celebrating the Fourth of July as an American citizen.
After leaving his home in Elbasan, Albania, at 14, Zelli traveled the world, living in places like London and Greece. But when he met his wife, Michelle, who is American, he decided to make the move to the United States.
“When you live in a lot of different places, you get different perspectives on things,” Zelli said. “But coming here, becoming an American citizen made me feel proud.”
To become a citizen, Zelli had to take a test on U.S. history that taught him about the colonies and the Revolutionary War. While studying history may not seem like fun to some, Zelli enjoyed knowing the history and meaning behind his new country.
“Becoming a real American citizen is like driving a car,” Zelli said. “And you feel good when you’re doing it the right way. You’re not scared of anything, you have the rights to be on that road. It’s a sense of freedom.”
Zelli celebrated his first Fourth of July as a citizen with a classic cookout at his home in Williamsburg with his wife and their daughter, Abbi.
“Every country has its own story, its own holidays or independence days,” Zelli said. “But I think that when you learn and you read about the colonies and the war, you realize the Fourth of July is more about just fireworks. I think if you’ve never been to war, you won’t know what it all exactly means but when you learn about it, you start to feel it.”
The fight for freedom
For some Americans, like Bill Townsley who fought in Vietnam, going to war is part of their life story. And it has made them appreciate their American freedom all the more.
On Jan. 18, 1969, Townsley, 75, was shot down over enemy lines in Laos.
He was 26 years old.
Townsley knew his buddy ahead of him was extracted to safety, but being too close to the enemy, Townsley had to spend the long hours overnight wondering if he would ever make it home.
Townsley said many thoughts and emotions were crowding his mind when he spent that night in Laos, but regret was not one of them.
“I’m in the military,” Townsley said. “Some of us make it, some of us don’t, and I’m going to try ‘till I die.”
Luckily, Townsley did make it home. He retired in 1994 as a colonel after a 27-year career in the Air Force.
Since retirement, he has been involved with various military-oriented charitable organizations, including Disabled American Veterans, Veterans of Foreign Wars and Military Order of World Wars, where he has served in numerous leadership roles.
For the past 15 years he has served as president for the Exchange Club of York and, in 2002, founded the American Independence Youth Leadership Conference.
Townsley says he sees himself as a patriot, and his lifelong journey with the armed forces is just a natural trajectory stemming from his core values.
“I believe in our country,” Townsley said. “We’ve got a lot of greatness about us.”
For nearly a decade, Townsley has served as the chairman responsible for organizing Yorktown’s annual Fourth of July parade. This started when the former committee responsible for organizing the celebration quit suddenly. Townsley and a group of members from the Veterans of Foreign Wars held a grassroots, unsanctioned parade through the streets of Yorktown.
“We’re gonna do it whether you like it or not sometimes,” he said.
Townsley says he was on course for a military career from an early age, from the shivers he felt in his spine when he heard the national anthem to the time he shook Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s hand as a Cub Scout.
Today, he continues to serve by helping his fellow veterans and their families.
It is no surprise his handiwork is all over local Independence Day celebrations. Townsley values his country, and his actions and achievements prove that.
“We have a duty, I think everybody has a duty to serve our nation as well as we can,” Townsley said.
Editor’s note: This story first published July 4, 2018.