Moved by the events of 9/11, Bill Stevens was looking for a father-son project to do with his then 7-year-old, Cody, to teach him to respect our country's soldiers.
Stevens' friend, Laird Canby, soon heard about the project and said they could do even more.
"He said, 'I'll help you, we'll raise dollars and we'll take care of soldiers," Stevens said.
And it took off.
Stevens, founder of Operation One Voice, a group that raises money to help support the families of wounded and fallen U.S. Special Operations Forces, is Minnesota Duluth's honored guest for its fifth annual Military Appreciation Day at 6:05 p.m. Saturday at Malosky Stadium, where the No. 20 Bulldogs (1-1) take on No. 8 Minnesota State-Mankato (2-0).
Stevens, of Hoschton, Ga., will speak to the Bulldogs this week, talking about how the team concept relates to his lifetime of work. Stevens worked 30 years as a fireman and is in his 27th year in law enforcement, often doing double duty.
"If the driver doesn't do his job, getting the team to the fire, or the emergency, we fail, just like with a football team, if a lineman doesn't do his assignment, the team fails," said Stevens, 60. "That team concept ties in with the Special Ops warriors we deal with. There are a lot of things in common, and I just want to impress upon them that we all do this together."
From humble roots
When Stevens first started Operation One Voice, he would raise money and send challenge coins to U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa, Fla.
"The four-star general there at that time basically adopted my son," Stevens said. "He was fighting the war, but he took the time to write Cody a two-page handwritten letter encouraging him to study hard and be-all-you-can-be-type thing. And that just moved me, that these soldiers would take the time to encourage a young child like that."
Stevens was reached by phone Tuesday in Illinois while making the trek north from Atlanta. He was in the Eagle Rock Distributing bus that makes its way north for this event each year (for those who've seen it, you'll know what Stevens is talking about).
"It's not a bad trip for me," Stevens said. "I'm sitting on a couch."
Former UMD football player John Economos is the chairman of the board for Eagle Rock, which employs Stevens' friend Canby; hence the connection with Operation One Voice and UMD.
Stevens has spent much of his life in Duluth, Ga., and remembers a sister-city-type event between the two Duluths but is making his first trip to Minnesota. Last year O1V sent highly decorated Green Beret Jack Nevils to talk to the Bulldogs. "They're probably going to be disappointed with me," Stevens said, laughing. "Those are some awfully big shoes to fill."
Operation One Voice has raised more than a $1.2 million, taking wounded warriors on hunting and fishing trips, providing bikes for rehab and fitness, track chairs for those who struggle with mobility and educational assistance. Former UMD football player and longtime baseball coach Scott "HB" Hanna has been active with the group and is on the advisory committee, making the distance between the two Duluths not seem so far when the goal is the same (to donate, go to operationonevoice.org).
"We try to be the stop gap," Stevens said. "There are a lot of big organizations out there, but a lot of families are falling through the cracks. We fill those cracks."
An impressive 97 cents of every dollar donated goes to Special Operations families. That is something big organizations can't match. That's because O1V is all volunteer.
"I think about the big salaries that are paid (with other groups), and that's just not our heart. We want to take care of people," Stevens said. "I've been very fortunate in life. We have a business. I've got a great retirement. My life is good, but my life is good because these soldiers are out there standing the line, making sure that America is America to this day. A few more 9/11s, and it might not be the same as we know it."
People with Operation One Voice always say soldiers are quick to thank them. They insist it's the other way around.
"Just the personal relationships that you form, I walk away with way more than what they walk away with, if that makes sense," Stevens said. "That's kind of my philosophy on it."