What began as a way for a sister to honor her brother was transformed into a years-long community-wide tradition in Rockville Centre.
U.S. Marine Lt. Ronald Winchester was killed on Sept. 3, 2004, when an improvised explosive device detonated near his vehicle, killing three other Marines and Winchester, who was serving his second tour of duty in Iraq. He was 25.
In Ronald’s memory, his sister, Kristine, organized a pub crawl with friends and family the following year. Their mother, Marianna Winchester, a phys. ed. teacher at Oceanside Middle School, liked the idea so much that she decided to broaden the remembrance, and in 2006 she organized a similar fundraiser, a Walk of Honor, to commemorate her son in a way that would have made him proud.
For Marianna, the memorial event was more than just a symbol of her son’s heroism. She considered it a form of grieving, and a way to continue Ronnie’s legacy by doing what he had done throughout his short but honorable life — help make a difference in the lives of others.
It was Marianna’s mission to keep Ronnie’s giving spirit alive and to help take care of his fellow Marines, which, she said, was what he would have wanted.
Little did she know how much of an impact the walk would have. What started out small grew to include as many as 300 participants each year, and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years for organizations including the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund, the First Marine Division Association Scholarship Fund and America’s VetDogs.
And, just as important, it brought community members together. Local businesses and volunteers pitched in to help with the fundraising efforts, and Marianna said she would never forget the sight of a sea of brightly colored T-shirts, created for the walk each year, making its way across Sunrise Highway in her son’s honor.
Now, almost two decades after his death, the event has come to an end. The last hoorah for the Ronald Winchester Walk of Honor took place last Saturday. About 200 walkers took part.
The event started at R.J. Daniels, from 4 to 6 p.m., and continued into the evening at Kasey’s Kitchen and Cocktails, and featured half-price drinks and a free buffet. There were also raffle basket drawings and a 50/50 raffle as well as a live DJ and dancing.
“I was concerned about the weather … but it didn’t keep the crowd away,” Marianna Winchester said.
She explained that there was no particular reason for the event to end, but most of the volunteers who have been involved over the years are retired and settling down into new chapters of their lives, so it just seemed like the right time.
After all the years of fundraising, it was clear that the walk’s initial mission had been accomplished, but Winchester emphasized that it couldn’t have happened without those dedicated community members. She said she would always appreciate the people and businesses that donated their time and effort, including the U.S. Naval Academy, which, year after year, donated merchandise and apparel for the cause.
Ronald Winchester graduated from the Naval Academy in 2001. He was a lineman and a captain of the Navy football team, and in 2000 he led the Midshipmen to victory in their biggest game of the season, against Army, 30-28.
He served as a first lieutenant with the ground infantry, and is remembered for his unwavering commitment to his country.
Over the years since his death, several local businesses have offered up their space to host fundraisers for the memorial walk, which Marianna and her family said they were eternally grateful for. She gave special thanks to R.J. Daniels and Kasey’s Kitchen and Cocktails — her son’s favorite watering hole for many years — for their continued support.
She recalled how the establishments went out of their way to make the walk possible, even in the summer of 2020, as the world was slowly opening back up amid the coronavirus pandemic, and they made sure to continue the cherished tradition.
In previous years the event raised anywhere from $18,000 to $21,000.
However, Marianna said, since they didn’t sell any merchandise this year — which, in the past, brought in $7,000 to $8,000 — they expected the total to be lower.
The Ronald Winchester Walk of Honor will forever remain a story of how powerful the love of a community can be — how it can heal wounds, comfort a mourning family, and help a mother through the grieving process after losing her son, all while making a difference.
The outcome is greater than Marianna ever could have imagined when she first organized the event. Her son’s name will always be remembered not only by family members, friends, walk participants, their fans, and the volunteers who kept the cause alive but also by the many veterans who have benefited from their efforts. It is thanks to all of them that Ronnie’s legacy will be one of generosity and sacrifice.