Ballenas is president of the Friends of Maple Grove, a Richmond Hill Historical Society board member, published author of five local history books, moderator of the Aquinas Honor Society at the Immaculate Conception Catholic Academy, and a 5th and 6th grade social studies teacher for over 35 years.
The life of Clarence O. Collins, a young soldier who resided at 10 Roman Avenue (now 72nd Avenue) in Forest Hills and died in WWI at age 21, will be portrayed at the annual “Spirits Alive” event on September 29 from 2 to 5 pm. at Maple Grove Cemetery.
Other WWI soldiers buried at Maple Grove that will be portrayed include George M. Coleman, Major Charles Cook, Fuller Mellish, Jr. (also a Broadway stage and early films actor from Forest Hills), Charles Otis, and Ludolf Portong.
“Our motto for the Friends of Maple Grove is ‘Where History Comes Alive,’ and we strive to create programs, events, and concerts that honor the memory of the 88,000-plus people buried at Maple Grove,” said Ballenas.
Collins attended Public School 89 and Newtown High School, and was a member of the Knights of Columbus and the Boy Scouts. His last 12 years were spent in Forest Hills.
He was wounded in action by shrapnel and taken to a field hospital, where he died from his injuries on August 13, 1918, in France.
“I became seriously ill while I was at Camp Greene and developed pneumonia, but fortunately completely recovered,” reads an excerpt from the Spirits Alive script. “I was offered a discharge, but declined to accept it. I finally shipped out for France on May 18, 1918. I wrote letters to my mother, describing what I saw in France.”
“We haven’t had passes to go to town yet, so it certainly does my heart good to get mail,” one letter to his mother read. “This isn’t going to last much longer, and I am coming back to the States to stay. You need not worry about me. I am in fine health and getting fat. I am getting dark with the hot sun and the sand, for this place is like a desert.”
Shortly after his passing, the World War I Soldiers & Sailors Memorial at Flagpole Green in Forest Hills Gardens was designed by famed American sculptor Adolph Weinman, and Collins was among the 102 residents who served in the war honored.
Additionally, in 1921 the Newtown High School memorial committee arranged for 25 oak trees to be planted in memory of local heroes.
“There are many memorials erected in every American town for those lost, and they often display a list of names, but as decades pass we walk by and the servicemen’s names just become a name,” said Ballenas.
“With the assistance of Helen Day and Jo Anne Raskin, Friends of Maple Grove Cemetery board members and fellow historians, we started to notice the tombstones of many WWI soldiers,” Ballenas explained. “Collins’ story was incredible, as he grew up in Forest Hills just as the community was founded and was witness to its early development.”
Ballenas was inspired by his earlier project for the WWI memorial in Forest Park, the Buddy Monument.
“There are 70 names, and I wanted to know who these young men were,” he said. “By telling their story, we can bring them back to life, and the meaning and power of their sacrifice can touch us deeply.
“By telling Clarence Collins’ story, we will bring his name, engraved on a cold piece of bronze, to life,” added Ballenas.