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: