Remembering a Newton Gold Star Mother ahead of Memorial Day – Wicked Local

Tom Mountain/Special to the Tab  |  Wicked Local

When first encountering Mrs. Likely, one was struck by the noble, yet tragic, eloquence that radiated from this 88-year-old Auburndale great-grandmother.

However awestruck an inquisitive bystander may have been as she dutifully unraveled her story, it was nevertheless difficult to maintain one’s composure in the presence of such an inspiring, steadfast woman.

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The serene, elegant manner in which she carried herself was reminiscent of Rose Kennedy, who after losing her third son Bobby in the prime of his life, graciously, yet defiantly, declared, “I will not be vanquished.” And neither was Mrs. Likely.

 Her story was a tragic, yet all-too-familiar one that mothers (and fathers) have encountered over the generations in our long, history. She shared a painful historical bond with well over a million other American mothers who one day answered that dreaded knock on the door to reveal the presence of a soldier in uniform delivering the news that their child had been killed in service to his or her country during wartime.

Nikki Likely

Mrs. Likely was a Gold Star Mother – an unenviable role which she held for over 50 years, until her own passing last Friday.

Her son, Ricky Likely, was a 1968 graduate of Newton High School. He worked after school at the Star Market in Auburndale Square and met his future wife Nancy at a play at Lasell University. In 1970 when he was just 19 he enlisted in the Army Infantry. He married Nancy when he later came home on leave.

This Newton bridge was dedicated to resident Richard Allen Likely, who died on April 27, 1971, while fighting in the Vietnam War.

Ricky was sent to Vietnam when his wife was two months pregnant. One day he helped another soldier into the medical tent in a hostile zone. He even took his place on patrol. Then a booby trap exploded, killing him instantly. His daughter Ginny, whom he never lived to see, was born shortly afterward.

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Ricky Likely died in Vietnam six weeks after his 20th birthday, and just several days before he was scheduled to be sent home.

His mother, Nikki Likely, was devastated. When she was able to bring herself back into the public realm, she immersed herself into helping veterans, young and old, who unlike her Ricky had the fortune to return home.

For over four decades she was a familiar face at the Chelsea Soldiers Home, the Bedford Veterans Hospital, and the New England Center for Homeless Veterans in Boston. Year after year she graced the annual Newton Memorial Day parade with her presence.

She became president of the Massachusetts Gold Star Mothers Association, where she sought out and comforted those other mothers who shared this unique, tragic bond. She adopted children, and was a foster mother to several more. It was all in memory of Ricky.

Yet Ricky Likely was, oddly enough, luckier than most. The average age of U.S. soldiers killed in Vietnam was 23. Many were under 20. Most never married, never had children. Ricky Likely did both. True, he never got to see his own child, but at least he had a child. 

In the succeeding years his mother would bring his daughter Ginny to his memorial and gravesite on those special occasions.

In 2005 at the dedication of the Newton North memorial to its alumni killed In Vietnam, Ginny Likely was present to honor a father she never knew. All the families of the deceased were there. It was somber. It was sad. It was heart wrenching. Yet however sad it was, the very presence, the very existence, of Ginny Likely was what seemed to matter most at the ceremony. Because Ginny was the only child of anyone on that memorial plaque. And through her, part of Ricky Likely still lived.

In a perfect world, parents would not have to bury their children and be given the flag from their coffin; children would not have to read their parent’s name from a memorial plaque. But that world is not yet upon us, and probably never will be.

And this year, like last year and the year before, and the decade before that, at Newton’s Memorial Day ceremony, Ginny Likely will place the memorial wreath for her father on the bridge over the Mass Pike named in his honor. Only this year she won’t be accompanied by Nikki Likely, who is now most assuredly with Ginny’s father. This time Ginny will be with her children, the grandchildren of Ricky Likely, once of Auburndale.

And ultimately, that’s what matters most.

Tom Mountain is a member of the Sons of the American Legion, Post 440.