A founding father, a new citizen and a war veteran: What it means to be an American

The Fourth of July is a day for celebrating America's independence, but for each American the holiday means something different. (WYDaily/Alexa Doiron)
The Fourth of July is a day for celebrating America’s independence, but for each American the holiday means something different. (Southside Daily/Alexa Doiron)

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.

Kurt Smith is Colonial Williasmburg's young Jefferson interpreter. (WYDaily/Courtesy Summer 2016 Trend & Tradition Magazine and Colonial Williamsburg)
Kurt Smith is Colonial Williasmburg’s young Thomas Jefferson interpreter. (Southside Daily/Courtesy Summer 2016 Trend & Tradition Magazine and Colonial Williamsburg)

“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.

Ylber Zelli shows his pride for both his home and new country by representing Albania with the crossed hands while holding an American flag. This year will be Zelli's first celebrating the Fourth of July as an American citizen. (WYDaily/Courtesy of Ylber Zelli)
Ylber Zelli shows his pride for both his home and new country by representing Albania with crossed hands while holding an American flag. This year will be Zelli’s first celebrating the Fourth of July as an American citizen. (Southside Daily/Courtesy of Ylber Zelli)

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.

Bill Townsley is a Vietnam War veteran that leads the Fourth of July parade in Yorktown every year. (WYDaily/Courtesy of Bill Townsley)
Bill Townsley is a Vietnam War veteran who leads the Fourth of July parade in Yorktown every year. (Southside Daily/Courtesy of Bill Townsley)

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.

Bill Townsley is a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, an organization aimed to provide awareness and resources for United States war veterans. (WYDaily/Alexa Doiron)
Bill Townsley is a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, an organization that provides awareness and resources for U.S. war veterans. (Southside Daily/Alexa Doiron)

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.

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John Mangalonzo (john@localvoicemedia.com) is the managing editor of Local Voice Media’s Virginia papers – WYDaily (Williamsburg), Southside Daily (Virginia Beach) and HNNDaily (Hampton-Newport News). Before coming to Local Voice, John was the senior content editor of The Bellingham Herald, a McClatchy newspaper in Washington state. Previously, he served as city editor/content strategist for USA Today Network newsrooms in St. George and Cedar City, Utah. John started his professional journalism career shortly after graduating from Lyceum of The Philippines University in 1990. As a rookie reporter for a national newspaper in Manila that year, John was assigned to cover four of the most dangerous cities in Metro Manila. Later that year, John was transferred to cover the Philippine National Police and Armed Forces of the Philippines. He spent the latter part of 1990 to early 1992 embedded with troopers in the southern Philippines as they fought with communist rebels and Muslim extremists. His U.S. journalism career includes reporting and editing stints for newspapers and other media outlets in New York City, California, Texas, Iowa, Utah, Colorado and Washington state.