FLORENCE -- For decades, the GI Bill has helped men and women leaving military service go to college, buy homes or start businesses.

“It definitely gave us a leg up and a good start,” said Dewey Jefferson of Florence Gardens, a Vietnam-era Navy veteran.

“For a guy fresh out of the service, with nothing more than a high school diploma, no money in the bank and no credit line, you don’t have anything to get started on.”

Jefferson used the GI Bill to get a home loan and attend college classes.

Florence will celebrate the 75th anniversary of this historic legislation from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. March 30. The free event will begin with a parade on North Main Street.

The GI Bill has helped millions of American veterans since 1944. Florence resident Gale MacDougall, who served in the Navy from 1972 to 1987, said the GI Bill helped him go to college and buy his first house. His Navy buddies enjoyed similar benefits. “The schooling system worked real well for them; it worked good for me, too.”

Paul Howell of Casa Grande served in the Army from 1965 to 1969. He received a small stipend courtesy of the GI Bill to help him finish his master’s degree in education.

Jim Reid of Mesa left the Navy in 1965 and eight years later, bought a condominium with help from the GI Bill.

Then-U.S. Sen. Ernest W. “Mac” McFarland and Warren Atherton, national American Legion commander in 1943-1944, are widely considered the “Fathers of the GI Bill.”

McFarland is credited with writing the educational and home loan provisions, which benefit veterans to this day.

McFarland, well-known in Florence as a lawyer, county attorney and judge early in his career, also served as governor and chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court. He maintained a relationship with Florence that spanned 60 years.

McFarland’s grandson John D. Lewis of Chandler is scheduled to speak at a ceremony at Florence’s Padilla Park (behind Silver King Marketplace) following the parade. McFarland’s grandchildren will be the parade grand marshals.

Other speakers will include Arizona American Legion Commander Steve Aguirre and Florence Mayor Tara Walter. Evie Clair of Florence will sing the national anthem.

People who benefited from the GI Bill will share their stories. Schoolchildren will honor veterans with letters of appreciation. The event will also recognize Purple Heart recipients, Gold Star families, those missing in action and prisoners of war.

The observance will conclude with refreshments and tours of McFarland State Historic Park at 24 W. Ruggles St. The Florence Woman’s Club, 231 N. Willow St., will be open in the afternoon as an old-style USO club.

Phoenix attorney and author Gary L. Stuart will host a discussion and sign copies of his book, “Call Him Mac; Ernest W. McFarland, the Arizona Years,” from 12:30 to 1:15 p.m. at the Pinal County Historical Museum, 715 S. Main St. This event is also free to the public.

American Legion Post 9, McFarland State Historic Park and the Greater Florence Chamber of Commerce are hosting the event. Proceeds will benefit the post’s charitable programs and the construction of a new veterans memorial at the Florence Library & Community Center.

A far-reaching legacy

President Franklin D. Roosevelt actually signed the bill on June 22, 1944, but organizers are holding the celebration several weeks early to avoid the summer heat.

Formally known as the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, the GI Bill’s benefits included tuition and living expenses to attend school; low-cost mortgages; low-interest loans to start a business; and a year of unemployment compensation. According to Wikipedia, “historians and economists judge the GI Bill a major political and economic success — especially in contrast to the treatments of World War I veterans — and a major contribution to America’s stock of human capital that encouraged long-term economic growth.”

Arizona historian Vincent Murray said, “Mac worked across the aisle in Washington to get the bill pushed through after WW II. Mac had seen what had happened to returning vets after WW I who came home to rampant unemployment and long soup kitchen lines.

“His provisions in the bill ultimately generated in excess of 450,000 trained engineers, 91,000 scientists, 67,000 doctors, 22,000 dentists, 238,000 teachers and other college-educated professionals. Millions also took advantage of the GI Bill’s home loan guaranty. From 1944 to 1952, the VA backed nearly 2.4 million home loans for WW II veterans.”

Later as governor, McFarland created the Arizona State Parks system in 1957. He bought the first Pinal County courthouse in Florence in 1974, donated it to the state and paid for its renovation. McFarland State Historic Park was opened and dedicated on Oct. 10, 1979, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“If Arizona had a Mount Rushmore, the men on it would be Carl Hayden, Ernest McFarland, Barry Goldwater and John McCain,” Arizona State Historian Marshall Trimble said. “Mac was courteous, fair, impartial and admired — something rarely seen in politics today. He rose Horatio Alger-like to become one of the most distinguished political figures in 20th century America.”

Participants in the March 30 parade are expected to include the American Legion Riders; El Zaribah Shriners; Ladies Oriental Shrine of North America Sphinx Court No. 65; VFW Rangers mounted color guard; high school marching bands from Florence, Poston Butte and Eloy; Imagine School drum corps and float; Florence Aero Modelers; American Family Insurance; Florence Woman’s Club; Sheriff’s Posse Explorers; and JROTC units from Casa Grande, Poston Butte and Queen Creek.

Food vendors are Ma’s Kitchen (from Mt. Athos Greek Restaurant) and Different Smokes Barbecue. The American Legion will serve hot dogs. Exhibitors include Art by Palmer Miller and Twin Rivers Gallery, CoreCivic, Northern Arizona University, Sheriff’s Posse Explorers and the Arizona Marines.

Sponsors for the celebration include Pinal County Federal Credit Union, Northern Arizona University and CoreCivic. For more information or to become a sponsor, call 520-868-4496 or 520-868-9433, email florencevisitorcenter@gmail.com or visit www.ewmcfarland.org.