On July Fourth, a Local Veteran’s Personal Brand of Patriotism

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Tom Wetzler sits in his living room.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Tom Wetzler sits in his living room.

On Thursday morning, Tom Wetzler put on his tri-corner hat and his Revolutionary War-era clothing. He headed to the corner of Schley and Candler streets to stand by the Schley Avenue Veterans Memorial, a small stone marker in a grassy median in the Highland Park neighborhood. 

For the third year in a row, the 68-year-old pulled out his copy of the Declaration of Independence. At 9:05 a.m., he read the words that sparked the beginning of a revolution: 

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

The Highland Park Neighborhood Association hosts the reading as its sole Fourth of July event. Association President Greg Ripps said Wetzler offered to do it a few years back, and members of the association liked the idea of a simple reading to mark the holiday.

“There’s no ceremony, because we don’t intend to compete with other events,” Ripps said. “We want people to know what the Declaration of Independence is all about.”

Tom Wetzler reads the Declaration of Independence.
Tom Wetzler reads the Declaration of Independence.

Throughout his life, Wetzler has developed his own brand of patriotism, founded on his involvement in anti-war activism after serving in Vietnam. He fervently believes in the rights written down by the Founding Fathers, he said, and honored the ideals of the United States with his time working on peace and justice issues.

Wetzler said he and the veterans with whom he advocated had deep feelings for the Declaration of Independence and its importance to the country. He also allowed that his personal political viewpoints may not resonate with everyone – his views on the current president, for example.

“On a very personal level, I think when we have a commander-in-chief who thinks nothing of recruiting foreign aid to get elected, I think it’s even more important to celebrate independence,” he said.

Wetzler, who grew up in Brooklyn, has lived in San Antonio since returning from Vietnam; the military brought him to the city. His patriotism may not have the same roots as everyone in the Highland Park neighborhood, but Ripps noted that Wetzler was the one to get a flag for the association’s meetings and the one who watches over the neighborhood’s veteran monument to prevent vandalism.

“We have different issues we discuss in the neighborhood association, and Tom and I don’t always agree, but there’s that core in him that is a patriot, and he knows history,” Ripps said. “That’s somewhere we can always find a basis of agreement.”

“We’re definitely a neighborhood of variety [of perspectives],” Ripps added.

Wetzler’s perspective is shaped not only by his activism but also his study of American history. Wetzler has accumulated years of knowledge about the Revolutionary War – as well as the Industrial Revolution – through self-study and formal education. At age 54, he received his bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Texas at San Antonio and continues to read avidly. His collection of reference books stretches up to the ceiling in his living room, surrounded by antique lanterns, woodworking tools, and mementos.

Wetzler extends his passion for history to his craftsmanship. He owns an extensive collection of antique woodworking tools – fully functional and used regularly – and dozens of lanterns from different eras. He doesn’t operate his woodworking shop as a money-making business but will take up odd jobs for neighbors who need small repairs or replacement moldings in their homes.

“A lot of these houses were built in the 1920s, so these tools fit the ages,” he explained.

“I like being in charge of my own time and when you’re on hire, you’re not,” he said. “That’s one of the things about old hippies – we know how to get by with not much.”

Wetzler describes his upbringing as fairly conservative, until he left home at age 17 for Greenwich Village and eventually joined a commune in New Jersey. The home was frequently raided by police, but he and his cohabitants were never arrested.

“At the end of that, I know what it’s like to be ‘other’ in American society,” Wetzler said. “That was a glimpse of not being mainstream and how people get pissed off and threatened by it.”

Wetzler enlisted in the Army when he was 18 and served in Vietnam as a medic. He returned to the U.S. in 1970, a 19-year-old veteran who was staunchly against the war. He also “knocked about” and explored different occupations after the war, he said.

“I was shy of making commitments to things,” Wetzler said. “I worked mostly with anti-war work with other veterans, did a lot of odd jobs, and eventually went to nursing school and became a nurse. Years later, I wound up finishing my degree and getting a teaching certification and taught history at the high school level and a lot of odd jobs in between.”

Tom Wetzler stands in front of his clothing line.
Tom Wetzler stands in front of the clothesline in his backyard.

In past years, Wetzler has attended Fourth of July parades, handing out copies of the Declaration while in the period costume he frequently tweaks.

“It changes all the time,” Wetzler said. “A friend in the neighborhood made my knee breeches a couple of years ago. I ordered a shirt online. I have an old hat I turned into a tri-corner from a garage sale. I make my own Halloween costumes [too].”

He continues to love and read the Declaration of Independence because of the writers’ beliefs – that all men are created equal and have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

“I’ve always been intrigued by the ideas of the Declaration of Independence,” he said. “I think it’s wonderful that these truths are self-evident. We’re not going to debate them. Move on.”

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