Metro

Hero squares get biographical upgrade

The plaque honoring Army Sergeant Alberto Montrond tells visitors to his hero square about his biographical information.
Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
The plaque honoring Army Sergeant Alberto Montrond tells visitors to his hero square about his biographical information.

The black signs with golden stars stand at street corners across Boston as shrines to loss and sacrifice. In the bustle of city life, few residents and workers may pause to look up and learn about the stories behind these “hero squares,’’ which honor locals who fell on far-flung battlefields.

The city hopes to change that. It is adding special biographical plaques to the signs that allow visitors to click on them with their cellphones, connecting them to an online memorial page containing additional details about the honorees.

The project, which began several years ago, is now picking up momentum, officials say. Biographical plaques containing these electronic bar codes have been added to 25 signs citywide so far, with a goal of eventually adding them to every hero square.

Advertisement

Relatives of the honorees applaud the city’s effort to draw more attention to the squares, a tradition that began after World War II.

Get Fast Forward in your inbox:
Forget yesterday's news. Get what you need today in this early-morning email.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

On Sunday, Richard L. O’Leary became the 1,263rd person to be honored. O’Leary, a 23-year-old Marine from Boston, was killed in Vietnam in an artillery attack on Sept. 25, 1967. The Boston College graduate had married a classmate eight months before his deployment.

Such shrines not only honor the fallen but also can provide a history lesson, said O’Leary’s brother-in-law, Peter Bellew.

“I think there are so many young people who aren’t really that familiar with the Vietnam War,’’ Bellew said as relatives gathered around O’Leary’s Square, in Jamaica Plain. “And to live through that time period where the public sentiment turned during that war — it was a very tumultuous time.”

To create a hero square, a family typically must make a request to their city councilor, who will draft a proclamation. The rest of the planning is handled by the city’s Veterans Services office, which coordinates sign production and installation.

Advertisement

Mayor James Michael Curley launched the effort in 1946, but honorees date back even further to those killed in World War I.

“I’m constantly looking up to see these and always wondering what that story is and who they are,” Veteran Services commissioner Giselle Sterling said. “I think it’s just important to keep those stories alive.”

The long-term goal is for every hero square to have a corresponding plaque. Sterling, who served in the Marines, said the biographical research can be meticulous and time consuming. Her office has been working with the city’s archivists to research the heroes’ backgrounds, some of which stretch over 100 years.

“Typically we’ve been implementing them to the newer Gold Star families,” she said, referring to those who lost relatives during wartime. “We’re trying to work our way back.”

The first sign to include the biographical plaque belongs to Army Sergeant Alberto D. Montrond. Montrond was killed in an explosion in Afghanistan on Feb. 13, 2006 at age 27. His sign was dedicated seven years later.

Advertisement

“He gave the ultimate sacrifice of his life to defend something that he really believed in, which is freedom and democracy for everyone — and he was a strong proponent of that,” Montrond’s cousin, who shares his name, said this week as the nation prepared to mark Veteran’s Day on Saturday.

Sergeant Montrond enlisted in 1998, and was awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. He is survived by a widow and two children, who live in Florida.

At Sunday’s dedication for O’Leary, about a dozen relatives and local officials met at the corner of Forest Hills and Robeson streets in Jamaica Plain to remember him. The group said the Pledge of Allegiance, and three Junior ROTC members marched up the street to O’Leary’s square; two were carrying ceremonial guns and the third held an American flag.

Darryl Miller, the city’s memorial and burials officer, said to the crowd: “We’re dedicating this area for him and his name will always be well-remembered within the city of Boston. We thank your family for the ultimate sacrifice that he gave serving our country.”

Anne Bellew, O’Leary’s sister-in-law, said she initially reached out to the city to start the hero square process in honor of the 50th anniversary of O’Leary’s death.

“I knew it was the 50th anniversary, and before too much more time goes by it would be fitting to do something,” Bellew said. “I used to think about it — ‘why wasn’t there a square’ — and really it was just a call to [Veteran Services] and things took off.”

O’Leary’s widow, Patricia Robinson, grew misty-eyed as she recalled her eight-month marriage and other milestones.

“His birthday was Oct. 19th, and he was killed Sept. 25th, so he was almost 24,’’ Robinson said after the ceremony. “We met at BC ... and we got married in January and he left in July.”

She recounted the broader toll his death had taken on the family.

“It was really very, very tragic,” she said. “It killed both his mother and father, and it was awful, an awful time.’’

Sophia Eppolito can be reached at sophia.eppolito@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @SophiaEppolito.