Willie Riley’s Purple Heart was always kept safe, but the trick was finding where it was. And getting it to its owner has been slow going.
Riley had given the medal to his sister Geraldine Turner, who died in 2015, to keep in a safe deposit box. The boxes’ contents ended up in the basement vault of the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield.
Monday the medal got one step closer to home.
It was presented to brother-in-law Tommie Turner, 67, of East St. Louis who was overwhelmed to see the medal during the ceremony at the East St. Louis City Hall.
“It’s a blessing. It’s a blessing from God,” said a sobbing Turner who was married to Geraldine Turner.
Willie Riley served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam from 1967 to 1969 and received his Purple Heart during that stint.
Willie didn’t talk much about his service. “He was just thankful that he went there and came back alive,” said Turner, who is a fellow U.S. Army veteran.
When he finished his U.S. Army service, Riley returned to East St. Louis to train thoroughbred race horses at Fairmount Park Racetrack. That love of horses took him to Riverhead, New York (near New York City) to train horses there.
But he kept close to his East St. Louis roots and became close with Tommie Turner who visited Riley to go fishing and have family fish fries.
“He was always easygoing. Nothing really upset him and that’s what I loved about him,” Turner said. “Whenever you put God in something, it always comes out right. I’m just thankful for knowing him and thank (Treasurer Michael Frerichs) for presenting this to me so I can send it to his wife.”
There are more than 100 unclaimed Purple Heart medals being kept at the capitol along with other unclaimed property, but four Purple Hearts have been claimed this year.
“Working in Illinois State government, there are many days of frustration, but today is a day that makes this job worth doing. Today is one of those good days,” Illinois State Treasurer Michael Frerichs said after presenting the medal to Turner.
The treasurer’s office is the custodian of unclaimed property and residents can check to see if the state is holding some of their property by visiting https://icash.illinoistreasurer.gov
Steve Nagy: 618-239-2688