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Rex and his service to veterans, immortalized

by Joe Arnold


Posted on December 11, 2009 at 7:05 AM

Updated Friday, Dec 11 at 4:23 PM

I have met or interviewed quite a few people who now have buildings or other construction projects named for them.  I look forward to the day I can remark to my young sons that I knew the people behind the plaques, such as at the Romano Mazzoli Federal Building (and did you know that the elevator on the Belvedere is also named after the former Congressman?), or the Muhammad Ali Center or the newly christened McConnell-Chao archives at U of L, just to name a few.

And, I am looking forward to seeing the sign that reads "Robley Rex Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center," both at the Zorn location and the new hospital when it is built.

I first met Mr. Rex in 1996, while covering the VFW National Convention in Louisville.  I was there to cover speeches by Presidential candidate Sen. Bob Dole and Vice-President Al Gore.  The World War One-era veteran was entertaining to talk to, and at the age of 95, sort of a relic, an opportunity to interact with history.  But, as I later learned when interviewing him in 2003, Rex was no museum piece.  He had a sense of duty that never died, a sense of duty that is being honored in the VA Hospital naming because over the decades, Rex logged more than 14,000 hours volunteering to help his fellow veterans.  In 2003, at the age of 102, he was still spending about 15 hours per week at the VA Hospital, informing veterans of their rights, helping fill out tax forms and shuttling x-rays and other medical paperwork to different departments.

I tried to keep in touch with this legend.  I knew I could count on seeing him at the big Veterans Day and Memorial Day events.  He always made an appearance with the Freedom Ride motorcyclists, who gave Rex his own leather jacket as they made their way through Louisville on the way to "The Wall."

When I interviewed him a second time in 2005, the104 year old was taking his first commercial flight to be honored at another VFW national convention.  This time, I pronounced his first name correctly, ROBB-lee, not ROBE-lee, as most media up until that time had said.  He was so hard of hearing, Mr. Rex had never noticed.

Robley died in April of this year, a few days short of his 108th birthday, leaving only one other World War One - era veteran alive.  On the way to WHAS11 on Memorial Day, I stopped at Zachary Taylor National Cemetary, where Rex's cremated remains were buried alongside his beloved bride, Grace.  The chiseled name on that grave marker would probably mean just as much to Robley as his name on the hospital.   I will always remember him, and as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in announcing Senate approval of the VA naming, "It is only appropriate that his name forever mark the entrance of the VA Medical Center."  Indeed.

Here is the news release from McConnell's office:


McConnell Measure to Name Louisville VA Hospital after Robley Rex is Approved
Conference Committee includes McConnell’s request in final appropriations bill
WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell announced Wednesday that his provision to name the current and future VA hospital in Louisville the “Robley Rex Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center” was included in the FY2010 Omnibus Appropriations Bill.  McConnell had offered an amendment to the original Senate version of the bill which passed unanimously.  Since the House bill did not contain a similar provision, McConnell successfully urged the conference committee to approve his version.
“I am glad to see that the conferees agreed with my recommendation of naming the Louisville VA medical center after Robley Rex.  It is only appropriate that his name forever mark the entrance of the VA Medical Center,” McConnell said. 
Decades after his own military service ended, Rex continued to serve his fellow soldiers by volunteering at the Louisville VA Medical Center.  Rex served his nation during the period immediately following World War I and devoted over 14,000 hours of his time volunteering to help fellow veterans.  Rex passed away on April 28, 2009, a few days shy of his 108th birthday.  He was Kentucky’s last World War I-era veteran. 
Both chambers must now approve the bill so that it can be sent to President for his signature. 
NOTE:  Last year, the VA Secretary agreed to a request made by Senator McConnell to spend $75 million for the planning and design needed to build a new Louisville VA hospital, which was the maximum the VA could obligate for the project in FY '09.  The site selection process for the new hospital is currently underway.   
FROM THE CONFERENCE REPORT – Page 25:  “The conference agreement includes a modified section 230 (attached) as proposed by the Senate which designates the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Louisville, Kentucky as the "Robley Rex Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center". The House bill contained no similar provision.”