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In The Limelight

Mark Finnegan

Co-Founder and President of VetsRoll

Interview by Teresa Nguyen

May, 2021

"For so many of them (veterans), they start to see that those fears were not just unique to them. It helps them to see that they’re not alone. They spend so much time exchanging memories. There’s gratification in witnessing this." ~ Mark Finnegan

Author’s Note

In 2017, I was delighted to travel as an assistant on the VetsRoll trip with my 93-year-old Uncle Joe. I knew this trip would be important and amazing. I also immediately realized that someday I needed to interview Mark Finnegan. A man like Mark, with all his charisma, extraordinary leadership and the impact he’s had on the lives of so many, can’t go unnoticed.
My Uncle Joe was a WWII U.S. Army veteran stevedore from Illinois, who rose quickly through the ranks to Staff Sergeant, loading and unloading cargo for our troops on ships in the Pacific Theater from 1943 to 1946. Joe’s father passed away before he could even return in time for the funeral. There were no cell phones back then and communication could take days or sometimes even weeks. What a challenging time for such a young man.

The VetsRoll trip was not only a wonderful bonding experience for me and my uncle but, more importantly, it was a time for him to be with his fellow WWII veterans, to tell stories or to sometimes stand silently alongside them. It was an opportunity to see significant war memorials, to face the past and embrace the present with those who understood him best. It was exceptionally meaningful to Joe and the array of emotions the trip evoked was a very special thing to witness.

Nearly 4 years later, in the early morning hours of April 30th, 2021, my brave, smart and inspiring uncle passed away. I miss him dearly still, but am forever grateful for the memories of that amazing VetsRoll trip.
Teresa and her Uncle Joe, a WWII veteran
Photo by Michael Cullen
Interview with Mark Finnegan

The Early Years


I was born to Cyril “Cy” and Barbara (Luce) Finnegan and was raised right here, near Shopiere Road, the sixth child of eight. There were four boys, then our sister Carol, then three more boys. Carol is still a good big sister. 

I attended a little school called Morgan School, on the east side of Beloit. That school is closed now. I attended Roosevelt Junior High School, which is also closed now. I don’t know if that had anything to do with me or not! For high school, I went to Beloit Memorial and graduated in the Class of 1978.
 
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My father was kind of my mentor in life. My mother was, as well. Dad had served as a WWII Navy Veteran (MM3) in the South Pacific Philippine Theater.

Growing up, we were in the RV (recreational vehicle) business, since I was nine years old. Dad began selling RVs out of his home in the '60s, as a part-time endeavor aside from his regular full-time job. In 1970, he and his business partner, Ed Schott, opened “Beloit Auto Sales”. Originally, they sold only automobiles. Then, when RVs became more popular, the name was changed to Beloit Auto and RV. Eventually it became Finnegan’s RV Center.

My mom is a lifetime resident of Beloit. She had worked as an Army Signal Corps civilian office employee as a de-coder for the War Department in Arlington, VA. She later worked as a wiring cable lacer at Jorgensen Engineering in Beloit until the end of the war. A true Rosie the Riveter! They were the women who went into the work force during WWII to allow more men to head overseas; keeping our factories running at capacity and indirectly leading to the Allied victory.  She met my dad while attending a Fairbanks Morse Naval engine training school during the war and were married shortly after the war 

My younger brother John and I learned customer service from a very young age. I supposed that’s where a lot of it started, because most of our customers back in the 70s and 80s were veterans from the World War II and the Korean War era. I think we always had a deep respect for them and for their service. 
Our dad had been in the U.S. Navy in WWII and our mother, who is now 95, was a Rosie the Riveter and my godfather, when he got out of the Navy in WWII, had to hitchhike his way back to Beloit from San Diego. Then it was “back to work”! 

My uncle was a US Army Sargent during Korea. My older brothers served during the Vietnam War and one of my sisters-in-law was an Army Major Combat Nurse in Vietnam. 

Post High School

My brother John and I were planning to go into the service. That’s what our parents did and what all of our older brothers did. It seemed a given. But I remember our parents sitting us down one day and they said,
 
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The Finnegan Family
“You know, we have four boys already serving and we aren’t comfortable having six boys in the service.”

With the RV business growing and the war in Vietnam over, John and I stayed in the family business. We worked alongside our dad. In 1993, he was diagnosed with cancer and survived for another 7 years. At that time, we had two locations, one in Rockford and one in Beloit. We decided to close the Rockford location. 

Sad News

Around 1998 to ’99 he started to decline in health. We had a golden pond trip out to Idaho for a family wedding. That was something I’ll never forget. Then, on New Year’s Day in January of 2000, I was attending the Rose Bowl out in Pasadena with my son. The Badgers had just won and we were out celebrating when I got a call from my wife, Darlene. She said, “You guys need to fly back. Dad fell into a coma and he’s not going to hang on.” 
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We had a motor home and seven people out there with us. It was a Sunday night. We knew we weren’t going to get a flight, so we drove straight through from LA to Beloit with awful ice on the way back. But we made it! He was still in a coma and hung in there long enough for us to say our goodbyes. We could tell he was responding by the changes in the machines hooked up to him. 

Our dad passed away on January 4th in 2000. He was finally free from pain. Dad wasn’t one to show much emotion, but in those last few months, you could tell he was suffering. It was time, especially when there was no quality of life left.

My mother was so loyal to him. She stayed with him at the hospital the entire time he was there. They had been married for 53 years!

Start of An Idea 

After our father passed away, we wanted to do something special in his memory, to remember his life and legacy. He had been well known in the community as a generous man, a philanthropist and he was really proud of his military service. And my mom was, too. We’d always had this kind of thing in mind…to do something special in Dad’s memory. 

In the heat of August, 2009, we were contacted by ABC TV’s Extreme Home Makeover show. I was working a lot, so had never seen the show. 
Barb & Cy Finnegan on their wedding day
June 15th, 1946
They wanted us to bring some RVs out to the set location west of Freeport to keep the cast and crew cool and comfortable. 

The star of the show was Ty Pennington. My dad’s name was Cy, so that was cool. I went out to talk with him to learn about the show. After learning about this family in need, the people they were helping, we asked if we could do a fundraiser to help them. 
We went back to work and got on the phones, computers, started asking folks if they’d donate $100 dollars to help this family. Before the TV crew was done filming, in less than a week, we had raised just short of $12,000 for this family! And this was at the beginning of the recession.

That told us that if the cause is right, people will still give from the heart.

The First VetsRoll Trip

In the year 2010, we’d heard about the wonderful Honor Flight, where they fly veterans to DC for a day. Being RV dealers, my brother and I began to figure the cost of doing this kind of trip by ground, a four-day trip, giving the veterans the experience to share time and stories with each other.
 
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Photo courtesy of VetsRoll
We figured out that the costs would be pretty close to what the one-day airplane charter would cost. I started doing the planning. At the time, we had nine RVs, our own motor homes, that we could use. I went public about our plans on WJVL on March 17th of 2010, on St. Patrick’s Day. We gave ourselves 60 days, until May 17th, to get the entire trip together - from fundraising to booking the hotels, to finding the vets! 
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It caught fire really fast and the donations started rolling in! That first year, we had 117 World War II veterans and 8 Rosie the Riveters that signed up for that trip for a total of 125! You’d never get that today with WWII vets, which is a testament to how fast The Greatest Generation is being called home.

That first year it was all World War II veterans and Rosies, none from the other wars. Many of them were former customers, so that helped us to find the people.

We ended up adding three charter buses to handle all the extra people. We made the trip to DC and back. There were all sorts of people welcoming us back in Beloit! We’d had a great time with no issues and thought we’d just return to work selling RVs. 
Three of the Rosies from VetsRoll 2017 
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The Welcome Home
Photo courtesy of VetsRoll
Becoming a Non-Profit

After that first trip, the people kept calling us and my phone never stopped ringing. 

Our family attorney was a Korean War veteran and he said, “You guys need to be a 501c3 to raise money and do this trip again.” Being a 501c3 is critical to raising funds. He somehow got us that status in three and a half months! We got a board of directors together and started planning for the next trip.

For the second VetsRoll trip, we opened it up to Korean War veterans. We had 10 buses and went up to 200 veterans on that trip! That went off perfectly.
My life was changed forever. We ended up going on trips for 10 straight years, with almost 2,000 veterans from 37 different states, even veterans who have traveled here from far and wide to go on this trip! We now have an average of 220 veterans and Rosies on every trip and from originally having 60 additional people on our supply team to 170 today! 

Every year we’ve raised a little over $400,000 in donations. We are able to do it because people believe in the mission and understand the importance of closure. 

The Team

Our supply team consists the Board of Directors, assistants, medical professionals, physical therapists and even psychologists who travel with us and watch for PTSD. 
 
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Korean War Memorial in Washington DC
I love how the veterans connect to each other’s stories through their conversations and strike up beautiful bonds. It never leaves them. 
We instruct our assistants on the team to just be a “fly on the wall” and to let the veterans talk with each other. It’s about them, not us. 
Our Volunteers

For the assistants and volunteers to pay for their own expenses and, in a lot of cases, take 4 days to go on the trip, is amazing. It just tells you how much it means to them and they understand what they’re providing for the senior generation.

We have a great Board of Directors who are so dedicated. The volunteers who are so involved in this. For example, our Mail Call is run by JoAnn Alleman. She connects with the schools and gets notes, cards, letters or drawings, which are given to the veterans as a surprise during Mail Call. It’s incredible, what she does and it means so much to the veterans to read those thank you notes, words of gratitude and appreciation. Then there’s Gayle Haab, who procures all the beverages and snacks. Her nametag says Bev Snacks. They are just two of many wonderful dedicated volunteers!

Our medical people bring so much to the table, and yet they pay to go on the trip. They are wonderful.  It’s hard to sum up all that they give and how important it is to have them on VetsRoll.

I kind of joke, but really mean it.  I’m the not-so-handsome face who gets all the credit for VetsRoll all the time. 
Photo courtesy of VetsRoll
It’s so awkward because there are just SO many people who give it their all to make it better. Everyone has a unique way of bringing a unique quality to the program. We’re really proud of them.

We plan every detail from start to finish. Every minute we’re on that trip is critical. The longer these people are around us, the more they understand how we can’t just stand around and talk. We have literally hundreds of people involved all along the way. My brother John handles a lot of work here in Beloit with the hotel programs and so much more.
It’s a community effort, really. We have police departments, fire departments along the way, churches and other town volunteers in other states who come out to greet us and make it all work!

Donations

Our donations come in from all over the United States. It’s not always cash donations, it’s sometimes items that we can use.

Dianne Hendricks is a big admirer of VetsRoll and has let us use the Eclipse Center, free of charge, in support of the VetsRoll program. She has also donated wheel chairs, two different times, for our veterans on the trip and that’s huge. It’s so important when we’re out in D.C. doing a lot of walking around. Some of the veterans don’t use a wheel chair on a regular basis, but they sometimes need to rest on the journey and now we have those available.

We have received in-kind donations such as pro-bono work from Drywater Productions. Cameron and Stephen Pickering have gone on seven trips, creating amazing videos of our veterans and their stories! They’ve also done side jobs on human interest stories.

Our photographers are also terrific. Michael Cullen, our regular photographer, even pays for his trips! He’s with the Beloit Fire Department.
 
John Finnegan, Co-Founder of VetsRoll
Always working behind the scenes
VetsRoll 2013 Mini-Documentary
Produced by Drywater Productions
 
Special VetsRoll Moments 

On one trip, we had a WWII veteran who found his son’s name on the Vietnam War Memorial wall. That was truly emotional to witness and our professionals were right there to comfort him.
 
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Another story that stands out was when we had a gentleman, a Korean War veteran from northern Wisconsin. I’d heard that this guy had a brother whose plane was shot down over Tokyo in WWII that and the entire crew perished. We found out that there was a memorial in Arlington Cemetery for this specific crew. 

 

While the rest of group of veterans and assistants were at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, we took a tram and our driver knew exactly where this memorial was. She took the veteran right to that memorial, he got off the tram, kneeled down to say a prayer for his brother and put his hand on the stone over the name. That gave him closure…something he had needed for 70 plus years, because he was considerably younger than his brother.

We had another Korean War veteran from St. Louis whose mother and father were both killed at Pearl Harbor in World War II. His father had been a Navy officer at Pearl Harbor.

Photo Courtesy of VetsRoll
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Photo by Lisa Karr Photography
Courtesy of VetsRoll
His father had a headstone at Arlington, too. That year, the bus driver pulled to the side when we reached that area. They assisted the veteran as he got off and, in a similar story, he went to kneel at the grave of his mother and father, laying a flower at their tombstone.
There are some happy stories, too. There were two guys who ended up on the 2019 trip who had been buddies in high school before they went into the service. They hadn’t seen each other or talked in over 60 years. When we did the Mail Call, they recognized each other’s names and sought each other out. They had a special reunion there, and now their families have met and they discovered that they only live 40 miles apart!
 

On another trip, there were two guys from Rockford who served together in Korea who had worked in the same office. By coincidence, they both ended up on the same VetsRoll trip on the same VetsRoll bus! It had been 65 or 70 years since they had seen each other!

A couple of years ago we had another couple of guys recognizing each other’s names during mail call.

We captured video of that with Drywater Productions, where they reunited after many years!
 

I believe there’s a higher power that leads people to come together.

Profound Meaning 


Our tagline is:  Closure. Gratitude. Respect. 

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Mark with two veterans at the WWII Memorial  VetsRoll 2017
We’ve seen how the VetsRoll trip gives these guys new purpose in life. It sometimes gives them incentive to give back to their own communities. 
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Tears filled many eyes as taps was played for the VetsRoll veterans at the WWII Memorial in 2017
Photo by Michael Cullens
There are more and more student groups trying to learn this history. A number of our veterans will go out into the schools on Veteran’s Day to share their stories. And the young people will soak it up. It’s very important to educate the younger generations.

When they’re together as veterans, they share similar thoughts and fears. For so many of them, they start to see that those fears were not just unique to them. It helps them to see that they’re not alone. They spend so much time exchanging memories. There’s gratification in witnessing this.

We get a lot of handmade gifts that the veterans have sent us. It’s hard to describe – they sometimes just want to have a cup of coffee and talk.

We always accommodate that. It’s been a meaningful experience for them.  
Connecting Youth to the Veterans

We’ve had some wonderful teen volunteers from Beloit Turner, Hononegah Community High School in Rockton, Illinois, Harlem High School in Machesney Park and Parkview High School in Orfordville. Those schools do a great job with teaching the history and getting their students involved. 

They’ve come down to help us load the buses and unload buses and things like that. Sometimes they help push the veterans in their wheelchairs. It’s great.

Harlem High School has Harlem Veteran Doc, a nationally acclaimed veterans documentary program. They send some students on the trip every year. We once had four high school students and now we’re up to eight per trip. We hope to get up to 20, which would be two per bus. We have also had some future ROTC members from Beloit Memorial and other area high schools, who have been selected by their teachers to go. 
 
The young men in green were high school
assistants volunteering on VetsRoll 2017
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Youth group greeting the veterans at one of the stops
The veterans really relate to these kids because many of the guys were their ages when they went into the service. They form a really special bond. It gives you hope for the future. There are so many good kids out there. They are our future leaders.

Most teens are great. But one year, we had a couple of kids steal some flags from a processional pathway up Racine Street to Schneider Funeral Home in Janesville. We were returning the remains of a lost WWII soldier. We had police escorts and people saluting them all along the route. 

Well, we got a call from the police department that one of the moms found these flags in her basement and they were seeking punishment. 

We decided that rather than give the teens a fine that they could laugh about later, we’d give them an experience. 
We invited two Vietnam veterans, one a POW, and these teens plus their parents to come down to the police department to sit at a table. The veterans told the teens what the flag meant to them. Those students were so changed by that moment, that they became volunteers for various veteran events at the VFW in Janesville.

Sometimes teens just do dumb things and don’t think it through. But, once they understood the meaning of the flag, especially what it means to someone else, they realized the gravity of what they’d done.
The Coronavirus Pandemic

We had to cancel the VetsRoll trip in 2020 due to the Coronavirus Pandemic. If we had said “Oh, we know better than the health professionals,” and then had someone get sick, someone who is in their 90s, that would have been the end of our program! As difficult as the call was, we knew it was the right thing to do.

Then again, in 2021, we knew that it was still just too early to bring all these seniors together. 

Personally, it has pained me to see The Greatest Generation, many of them in nursing homes, to be so isolated. I saw my mother just twice in the span of the pandemic. She got COVID, as well, and survived it! In all that time, she hadn’t been able to get her hair done or her nails.

Even with those little appointments…they need the one on one with other people. It’s been no fault of the nursing facility, but with her dementia, she’s been totally lost. We finally took her to the beauty salon and she felt like a new person! 
 
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Mark and his mom, Barb Finnegan
How many thousands of stories are out there among our elderly? We often take that for granted.

At the start of this year, January 2021, I got sick with COVID, too.  I have absolutely no idea where I contracted it from. I hadn’t realized the number of hours it took to tend to VetsRoll matters until that point! My son took me to the ER and because they didn’t have any open beds, the hospital sent me home. It was so hard to breathe and my anxiety ramped up. It was also hard to swallow and I lost my appetite, which is a good thing for me (laughter).

Because Dar was with me all along, she came down with COVID. I took her to the ER and she recovered alright. It hit me harder than it hit Darlene. She experienced some lingering “brain fog” and things like that. Everyone’s symptoms are different. We were both quarantined for about a month. We have a newfound respect for what it means to take a breath.
 
105 year old WWII veteran, Major William White
I’m not one of these “Never Masker” people. I’ve not had a problem with putting on a mask and going into a business. I even lost a couple of friends who had COVID.

I told my business owner friends to not look at anyone sideways because they’re wearing a mask. That’s their comfort and safety level and we need to respect that. Use common sense. There’s nothing to be ashamed of when wearing a mask!

We still need to support our businesses, so get your take-out food if that’s more comfortable for you, but we have to keep them afloat.

The Centenarians

Because of the pandemic, we have started focusing on our oldest veterans, celebrating their birthdays. 
One of our guys, Ken Boyd, recently celebrated his 100th birthday. He had flown 3,000 hours over the Himalayas to our troops behind enemy lines in China. 
We also celebrated a Pearl Harbor veteran who just turned 100 the day after Veterans Day, right here in Beloit. We did a 100th birthday drive-by for another veteran in Rockton last October. He was in the Norwegian Air Force, flying over the fiords bombing German U-boats. It’s inspiring to hear their stories and learn about all the incredible things they did during the war. We’ve celebrated a total of ten 100th birthdays over this past year!

We have a veteran, Major William White, who is now 105 years old and is planning to attend our trip next year. He’ll be 106! We’re praying for him to make it! 

I was thinking of starting a “Century Club”, especially since we’re getting out of the pandemic. It would be a nice way for them to get together and for the media to come out and record their stories.
Role Models

My mother and father were definitely instrumental in influencing me. My maternal grandfather Harry Luce was a pastor in a church and taught me to find the good in others. We have such a mesh of people, so that attitude helps us all work well together.

Winston Churchill is another person I truly admire. He had charisma and knew how to get the job done in spite of overwhelming odds against him. I love his quotes.

Motivation to Give Back

I wasn’t blessed with riches, but was blessed with parents who taught us the meaning of happiness from within. There’s a fulfillment in giving that you can’t describe.
 
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I think maybe this is my calling. I received a letter from one of our veterans that said, “If the people of VetsRoll had planned the Invasion of Normandy, it would have gone a lot smoother!”
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Mark and Darlene Finnegan 
Family

My wife Darlene and I just celebrated 36 years together. She’s been by my side all along. It’s been 36-years of “for better”, never experienced “for worse”. 

She’s on our Board of Directors, too. She is a behind the scenes person, who understands the hours it takes. She has also helped with our “Save Our Local Businesses” Facebook page, which we started at the beginning of the pandemic. There’s been a lot of support for our businesses through that page.

Darlene and I have gone from being kids in our 20s to having kids in their 20s and 30s. We have a son Justyn who is married to Taylor. They have a 7-year-old daughter. My daughter, Krystina is married to Nate with a 2-year-old. We put y’s in their names after my dad’s name, Cy. Having grandkids is the best part of life!
The Future

We think we’re good with next year with the vaccines and all and hopefully people will be comfortable with taking the trip. We’re very excited about VetsRoll 2022! We will add two extra buses to make sure people will be spaced out more, but still have the same amount of people. 

The trip will be from May 22nd - 25th of 2022.  
 
We have 19 WWII veterans signed up. We hope most of them will still be healthy enough to travel.

I’m looking forward to VetsRoll 2022. And at this point, there’s no plan for retirement in my business or VetsRoll. I’m 61 and a lot of our volunteers are in their late 60s or early 70s.
I don’t know about their plans, but, as long as I stay healthy, I’m going to stay with it!
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