Some SW Floridians seek July 4 meaning beyond fireworks, parades

William DeShazer/Staff
Lola Coderre, 5, of Orange County, Calif., waves an American flag during the The Annual Fourth of July Parade in downtown Naples on Wednesday July 4, 2012.

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William DeShazer/Staff Lola Coderre, 5, of Orange County, Calif., waves an American flag during the The Annual Fourth of July Parade in downtown Naples on Wednesday July 4, 2012.

As Americans nationwide crowded downtown streets in anticipation for Wednesday's Fourth of July parades, Gerda Hansen joined a smaller group, passing around a microphone and reading the Declaration of Independence.

The Estero resident, who came to the United States from Austria on a Fourth of July soon after the end of World War II, said she's moved each time she hears the words of the declaration — and believes many Americans don't appreciate its significance.

"If you lost your freedom or never had it, you really appreciate the opportunity to have it," said Hansen, who was 10 when she first set foot in the U.S. and now serves as honorary consul of the republic of Austria. "If it has to be earned, we always remember."

Christmas has Santa. Easter has a bunny. The Fourth of July has fireworks. But each holiday has a deeper underlying meaning that is easily lost on overworked Americans just grateful for a day off.

Hansen was one of about 50 people who gathered for the Declaration of Independence reading hosted each year by the Estero Historical Society. The reading was held at 10 a.m. between two restored buildings at the Estero Community Park.

"We celebrate with fireworks and we celebrate with picnics, but the true meaning of the Fourth is our declaration, declaration of separation from England," said Jean Pryal, vice president of the historical society.

Many who joined in the reading echoed her comments, saying it's important to remember the significance of the Fourth.

"Events like this are near and dear to me," said Estero Fire Commissioner Dick Schweers. "On this particular day, it's my highest priority. It beats the fireworks."

Schweers recalled the sacrifices made by the soldiers of World War II. Those veterans were also on the mind of Jay Arend, who recalled seeing them as a child.

"When I was a kid, to see the soldiers marching in the second world war was a thrill," said Arend, who served as mayor of Bonita Springs from 2004 to 2008 and attended the city's parade Wednesday. "I think we forget our history, the significance of it."

Arend may be right.

A 2011 study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress found only 35 percent of fourth-graders knew the purpose of the Declaration of Independence. A 2010 poll by the nonprofit Marist Institute for Public Opinion found that 26 percent of those surveyed — including 32 percent of Southerners — did not know the U.S. achieved its independence from Great Britain.

"I just wish we could do more," said Arend, who wore a shirt featuring a flag and the words of the declaration on Wednesday.

Paula Bruns, 57, who brought her one-year-old granddaughter with her to Wednesday's reading, said she thinks everyone should know its words.

"Music's great, fireworks are great," she said. "But we need to remember why we have all this."

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