Current owner of home of ace fighter pilot James H. Kasler builds memorial
MOMENCE — Seth Burkey was determined to get a memorial to the late Air Force Col. James H. Kasler built by Veterans Day.
That determination along with donations of money, work and materials and the centerpiece bronze statue of a 25-foot American bald eagle has made it a reality.
The memorial to Kasler and his family near their former home will be celebrated at 3 p.m. Saturday.
Burkey said the Saturday date was selected so as not to conflict with Veterans Day events planned for Sunday.
“Everything looks awesome. It has all come together,” Burkey told the Daily Journal in a phone interview Thursday.
The cost of the memorial was $25,000. Burkey started a funding campaign eight months ago.
Burkey came to understand the heroic stature of the late Kasler on a humid summer day in 2016. That’s when a man wearing a Vietnam veteran baseball cap rang the doorbell.
“I looked to see who it was, and here was this tall man holding a book in his one hand,” Burkey said. “It was ‘Tempered Steel,’ the book written about Col. Kasler. The man said he was here to have Kasler sign the book. Unfortunately, I had to tell him the colonel did not live here and had recently passed.”
Kasler passed away at the age of 87 in April 2014, a few years after he sold South Shore Golf Club, which he ran for more than 20 years.
Burkey read the book after he and his wife, Mary, bought the house in 2015. They decorated a portion of a front room as a tribute to the former owner and his military fetes, including several photos, letters Kasler received and other medals and items.
“It was a hot day,” Burkey continued, “so I asked him to come in and cool off. He had traveled from northern Wisconsin or Michigan. We sat there by the Kasler collection. I spent two hours talking with the man, listening to phenomenal stories about the colonel. They had never met. It was one of those goosebump moments.
“That’s when I knew we had to do something to honor the colonel, Martha (his wife) and the family.”
A combat veteran of three wars — World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War — Kasler was a fighter pilot and was recognized as an ace. He flew a combined 198 combat missions and was a prisoner of war in Vietnam from August 1966 until March 1973. He is the only person in history to receive three Air Force Crosses, the branch’s highest honor.
According to Burkey, Martha Kasler now splits her time between a winter home in Florida and Momence.
Burkey had set out to build a roadside memorial in front of the home and hoped to have it built and ready for viewing later this year. It now sits on the home’s roadside entrance on East 1500N Road next to the No. 4 green of the former South Shore, on a portion of 10 acres of the golf course the Burkeys purchased. A life-size bronze eagle monument is situated around a landscaped area near a creek, and the No. 4 green will get a makeover using synthetic material. The plan is to have a small parking area for six to eight cars near the monument.
Burkey put the cost at $25,000, with the eagle costing $6,000. A nonprofit organization was formed, and Burkey said funding has come from public and private donations, including a GoFundMe account.
While there is a memorial park in Momence that honors Kasler, Burkey said this one “will recognize the Kasler family and forever be located on the property they resided at.”
Looking for a house
How did the Burkeys come to buy the Kasler home?
Seth and Mary Burkey were looking to move from their old farmhouse in rural St. Anne. As legend has it, Seth said the Realtor had one more house to show them, the Kasler homestead, which sits between the No. 4 green and No. 5 tee.
“It looked nice from the outside. We opened the door, walked in and looked around and fell in love with it,” Burkey said.
The Burkeys learned about the first owner and his hero status from the previous owners who bought the house from the Kaslers.
“The items that are currently on display in our home were in the crawl space when we bought it,” Burkey said. “The couple we purchased the home from relayed the message that Martha had the items she wanted, and so many other items she had were sent to museums.”
Through research, Burkey learned there are Kasler items in the Pentagon, the Smithsonian, the Indiana War Memorial and the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Base near Dayton, Ohio.