Towering above Hampton, Ruppert Sargent building named for one of city's bravest sons

alrockett@dailypress.com
Towering above Hampton, the Ruppert Sargent building named for one of the city bravest sons

The six-story brick-and-glass structure at the corner of Franklin and Queen streets in downtown Hampton is named for one of the city's most courageous sons.

To many, it's where they pay taxes. Or attend a school board meeting.

But everyone who enters the building's lobby is greeted with the face — a bronze bust, actually — and heroic story of Army 1st Lt. Ruppert Leon Sargent, who died from wounds in the Vietnam War when he threw his body over two grenades that would have killed at least two other soldiers.

"It's got high visibility," said Hampton Mayor George Wallace Tuesday after a ceremony to recognize Andy Greenwell, a retired city employee who was instrumental in having the building named for Sargent. "We though this was of the magnitude of the Medal of Honor."

Sargent received the nation's highest commendation for valor following his actions in the war. He was one of the first black officers, and the only Hampton resident to receive the honor. He's wearing the distinctive medal in the statue that was placed in the building that bears his name in 2002, when it was dedicated.

Greenwell said then that it was the culmination of a 35-year journey that started in 1967 just after Sargent died. Then working as director of the city's commerce department, Greenwell received a letter with three money orders totaling $230 from Sargent's company, still in Vietnam.

The letter asked of whomever received the money to purchase a wreath for Sargent's grave — he's buried in Hampton National Cemetery — and give the rest to his widow.

Greenwell did that. But he didn't stop there.

"I never let it go," Greenwell said after Tuesday's ceremony. "Because I'm a veteran, a Korean War veteran, and I lived through World War II, I just have a sensitive feeling for people who wear uniform, and even more so for those who sacrificed their lives."

John Gately, chairman of the Hampton Military Affairs Committee that honored Greenwell on Tuesday, said it was Greenwell's tenacity that got the job done and found a fitting way to honor the war hero.

"It towers above this city as a bold statement to the legacy of one man and as a symbol to all others who have served," Gately said.

Among those, Gately included the 11 Documented Original Tuskegee Airmen native to Hampton Roads — four of whom are still living and were also honored Tuesday evening. The World War II veterans were among the first black airmen.

"If it had not been for you guys, and a few women," said retired Air Force Lt. Col. T.J. Spann, president of the Tidewater Chapter of Tuskegee Airmen, "I wouldn't not be standing here as a lieutenant colonel here today. We thank you."

They paved the way, Spann said, for many in the room, and Sargent, to be able to become officers and move to higher ranks.

Wallace signed a proclamation naming Tuesday Tuskegee Airmen Day in the city of Hampton.

The names of the 11 local Tuskegee Airmen are featured on a plaque that now hangs in the Veterans Conference room in the Ruppert Sargent building.

"That's me," said Ezra Hill, a retired master sergeant from Hampton, pointing to his name as the plaque was unveiled Tuesday.

Rockett can be reached by phone at 757-247-4942.

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