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A way to learn more about those who served: Volunteers place medallions on WWI veterans’ graves in Denton

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated which veterans organization is leading the effort to mark veterans' graves with patriot medallions. The project is part of the Texas Veterans Hall of Fame. 

While one volunteer held down a patriot medallion, another used a bolt and hammer to lodge its stake about 6 inches into the ground next to a World War I veteran’s grave.

Volunteers repeated this process Saturday until medallions decorated the final resting places of 176 WWI veterans at IOOF and Oakwood cemeteries in Denton.

The project is a collaboration between the locally based Texas Veterans Hall of Fame and Historic Denton, a nonprofit making efforts for historic preservation in the city.

Gary Steele, with the Veterans Hall of Fame, said they started with World War I veterans since 2018 marked the 100-year anniversary of the war’s end.

“There’s about 800 veterans in both cemeteries,” Steele said. “Today we’re going to celebrate the 100-year [anniversary]. Our goal is to do all the veterans in these two cemeteries and we’ll partner with other cities to do this.”

Each medallion has a scannable QR code on the back. When the code is scanned with a mobile device, it’ll lead to a page on the Texas Veterans Hall of Fame website about the particular veteran once website development is complete.

Steele said families are welcome to provide biographies for veterans as long as they were born in Texas or lived in the state for at least seven years.

The computer science department at University of North Texas is also working with the organization to create a mobile application where people can find the cemetery where a veteran is buried if they know the city they’re buried in.

World War I began in 1914 after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Several countries including Austria-Hungary blamed the Serbian government for the assassination, setting countries off to take sides: The Allies included France, Great Britain, Russia, Serbia, Italy and the United States, while the Central Powers included the German Empire, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria.

Volunteers in Saturday’s efforts ranged from veterans, a currently enlisted Air Force cadet and student volunteers from UNT, some of them Air Force ROTC cadets.

The younger volunteers teamed up and worked in pairs to place medallions next to veterans’ graves. Air Force ROTC Cadet Colton Estes led the group as they searched for gravesites on their map.

Moving clouds brought sun one minute and shade the next. The breeze and 81-degree weather kept volunteers cool. Doughnuts kept them fueled before they went about placing more medallions on graves at Oakwood.

For cadets in UNT’s Air Force ROTC, one of the requirements is doing volunteer work.

Ricardo Iniguez is a logistics student at UNT and is currently enlisted in the Air Force Reserves. Iniguez said he chose this volunteer opportunity to give thanks to those who have served before him.

“I just want to, in a way, give thanks to veterans there before me who established the path for us and show respect [because] not a lot of people think about veterans a lot,” Iniguez said.

Fellow UNT students Keegan Van Geem and Tazh Brown both come from military families.

Brown said he wants to be more involved in veteran volunteer opportunities because it will help with his career path: clinical psychology with a focus on veterans. He said his dad is currently serving overseas.

Van Geem is the secretary of UNT’s Student Veterans Association. She said it’s hard coming from a military family but that there’s a community within military families.

“[My dad] was deployed when I was young, and I have a twin sister and I know my mom had a tough time while he was gone,” Van Geem said. “There’s definitely a community to [military families] and people are very respectful towards his service. When he was gone, there was no hesitation from others to reach out and help our family.”

Run, rider, run: DCTA buses coming up short on performance

The launch of the Denton County Transportation Authority’s new bus schedule — meant to line up with more frequent runs of the A-train — has had a fitful run so far.

Text alerts for missed or delayed runs pop once a day or more on certain routes, far more frequently than the summer when such alerts popped once a week or so. Transit riders at the University of North Texas and on Denton’s east side appear to be the most affected.

Troy Raley, director of bus operations and maintenance for DCTA and its subsidiary, North Texas Mobility Corp., said he expects buses to get held up more often at the start of a school year, particularly near UNT.

“Most routes [near UNT] saw a 10-15% dip in on-time performance once school began,” Raley wrote in an email.

In addition, Route 3, which runs along East McKinney Street from Ryan High School to the Downtown Denton Transit Center, dropped to from about 85% on-time to about 65% on-time after school started.

“Most Connect routes experienced a similar drop,” Raley said, adding that the Denton city buses that don’t go past a school have fewer on-time problems.

Paula Richardson, union steward for the bus drivers, declined to answer questions on the drivers’ perspective of the schedule changes, citing DCTA’s new social media and media policy.

“It’s just too strict,” Richardson said of the policy.

Earlier this year, the DCTA Board of Directors adopted a policy that prohibits employees from talking to a journalist without permission. Employees can be fired for doing so, according to the policy.

DCTA Media Policy

DCTA took over the bus routes from a First Transit subsidiary this summer. Before the transition, DCTA buses had an overall on-time performance of 79% for buses, according to DCTA officials.

The latest on-time performance report, obtained through an open records request, showed that the agency hasn’t been able to move the needle on that metric since July.

From July through the first week of September, on-time performance for all fixed-route buses remained just under 79%.

DCTA Bus On-Time Performance

Some riders need the bus to get across town for school or work. Other travelers heading to the A-train platform can miss connections and be forced to wait as much as 30 minutes for the next train.

Route changes have helped some buses, Raley said, particularly at UNT. The Mean Green bus route that runs clockwise around the UNT campus was one of the worst performers until DCTA added a counterclockwise circulator on the same route, increasing its performance several percentage points.

In Denton, Route 6 performance also improved a couple of percentage points after it was rerouted to avoid a school zone in one direction. The bus travels from the train station to northern Denton along Bell Avenue and Elm Street.

Jeff Woo / Jeff Woo/DRC 

Mz Connie and the Hard Drive Band perform Saturday during the Denton Blues Festival at Quakertown Park. Attendees stayed busy with lots of music, food and family fun on Saturday. The festival continues today, and admission is free. See schedule, Page 2A. For more photos, visit DentonRC.com

OLLI expands its horizons over the years with new classes, programs and more

The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, a lifelong learning program that is designed by and for adults ages 50 and older, has seen a major growth spurt in the last few years.

Over the past two years, OLLI has tripled its membership and expanded to five satellite locations. About 700 members from 53 cities and towns in the North Texas area are currently enrolled in OLLI. Because of that, OLLI received a $1 million endowment from the Bernard Osher Foundation in November 2018 after exceeding its membership expectations.

“We met all of the goals,” said Stephanie Reinke, director of OLLI. “We needed to get to 500 members, but we exceeded that. That endowment will allow us to ensure that lifelong learning is available to this community for many years to come.”

OLLI has more than 350 academic-based classes that are taught each year by current and retired professors and other area experts.

“Our classes aren’t like a typical college class that runs 16 weeks; they’re just a 90-minute class,” Reinke said. “People buy an annual membership and then they have access to the classes and can take them wherever they want.”

With the support of Neal Smatresk, president of the University of North Texas, OLLI’s location on campus has been moved to its own building space with free parking.

New locations for OLLI have been added in Frisco and Flower Mound, in addition to Good Samaritan Society-Lake Forest Village in Denton.

“We had to grow our program and expand our curriculum,” Reinke said. “We did a lot of marketing and publicity to get the word out that we existed. We went from offering 100 classes a year to over 350 a year.”

Different types of classes are still being added to the course list and many are inspired by members of OLLI. People can make requests for classes, and the staff at OLLI will try to find an expert.

The spring class catalog, which is currently being finished by Andrea Tuckness, assistant director for OLLI, includes one course called “Life Lessons From Playing Poker.”

“We’ve got all kinds of stuff,” said Tuckness. “You name it, we pretty much have it. If there’s something we don’t have, our members will tell us.”

Special series have been introduced such as “Lunch and Learn Lectures,” which allow members to attend a lecture during lunch, and “After 5 Lectures” at Robson Ranch with complimentary wine and cheese.

In addition to classes, OLLI now offers special interest groups in areas such as book clubs, theater groups, yoga and “day trippers,” or field trips. Members are also able to travel together to areas outside the country. Most recently, a group of 22 traveled to Cuba for a week.

“The value of this program to our community is that research has recently shown that participating in lifelong learning programs can decrease cognitive decline, increase social well-being and have a positive impact on someone’s overall lifespan,” Reinke said.

The number of members is expected to continue to rise as word spreads. OLLI has institutes at universities around the country, and the possibility of expanding to online classes is being discussed.

“Our goals are just to increase awareness about the benefits of lifelong learning to people that are over the age of 50,” Reinke said. “Because we grew so fast, we’re working on fine-tuning all of our different satellite locations and making sure that the quality is consistent across all of them.”

For more information about OLLI, visit olli.unt.edu or call 940-369-7293.