Generations of veterans broke bread Monday morning at Coventry High School to remember the fallen, to honor their sacrifice and to heed the words of men and women who have fought, and continue to fight, for freedom.
Frank Klansek was the oldest to attend. Born 10 years after World War I, Klansek and six Garfield High School graduates went to occupy Japan in 1946 at the close of World War II. Seven more went to Germany.
Back then, recruiters scoured high schools, promising GI Bills to boys who signed up. "It was so different," said Al Leyerly, who joined the ROTC — a recruitment program founded during World War I — at 18 and enlisted in 1954. An executive officer in an Army artillery outfit, Leyerly occupied Korea from 1955 to 1956. "A lot of us were so patriotic because we'd grown up with World War II."
"It's important that we remember. I'm the last of the Greatest Generation," said Klansek, who owns Buckeye Surplus on East Market Street in Akron. "Everything seems to be going downhill today. There's less patriotism."
Sharing his wisdom in a green Army uniform, Klansek spoke after the annual veteran's assembly of a time when the public trusted the media, when families huddled around radios to follow Gen. George Patton's every step toward Berlin to strike down a nationalism that boiled into a roaring fascism.
"Nationalism betrays patriotism," Klansek said, offering his living memories as a contemporary history lesson. "That is what we have to be concerned about: this fervor of nationalism that divides us."
Art teacher John Hutchinson and social studies teacher Joe Headley started the veterans assembly 17 years ago at Coventry. Kitchen staff cook breakfast. National Honor Society students serve the free meal. Students honor local veterans in the auditorium before a silent, respectful student body.
At the end of the event, veterans usually line the hallway of the high school to receive a handshake and a humble look in the eye from every student. Principal Neal Kopp usually brings up the rear with a bottle of hand sanitizer for aging veterans from World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Veterans of more contemporary conflicts were not represented.
In this third year with less room at a new high school, Hutchinson and Headley have limited the handshaking to upperclassmen and those who demand the chance to greet the veterans. Hundreds of students participate.
Bobby Johnson, a senior who takes aviation courses each day at the MAPS Air Museum, looked each veteran squarely in the eye as he thanked them for their service. Training to be a commercial pilot, Johnson thought of following his late grandfather, a World War II veteran. "That was a dream of his, to serve. He went in when he was 18 years old."
The event began with one or two veterans and has blossomed in a generational exchange of American pride. “It started with coffee and doughnuts. And it has grown over the years," said Hutchinson, whose grandfathers served in the great war. "A lot of the guys, they’ve been coming here for years."
Throughout the years, Hutchinson and Headley have intentionally let students lead the patriotic program.
The assembly Monday drew 36 veterans — all but a few from the Vietnam and Korean War eras. Half were from the Army, eight from the Navy, four each from the Air Force and Marines and one still in the U.S. Coast Guard.
Like his sister before him, senior Zach Rankin served as master of ceremonies. The football player who blew out his knee this year limped across the stage with veterans — some leaning on canes. Five of his Coventry classmates took turns honoring the veterans with short speeches, patriotic songs played on YouTube and a movie trailer clip.
With an American flag stretching the length of the auditorium stage, the Coventry Chamber Choir sang sweetly: “Fighting for our home. Mary Mother, calm our fears. Have Mercy."
The event was all about honor, which is a big deal in the Rankin family.
Zach first learned of his family’s generational ties to the military in his mother’s closet.
Julie Rankin, among those celebrated Monday, hung her Air Force jacket there. Zach always admired that coat. It looked to him like a high school letter jacket for serving America, said the young man, who has told his teachers of his interest in the United States Military Academy at West Point.
Zach next learned that his grandfather, Jim Welton, served in the Army at Fort Benning, Ga., during the Vietnam War. Welton’s service, like his daughter’s and perhaps Zach’s, came naturally. Zach's great-uncle had survived the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Days later, Welton’s own father, Willard Ray Tarbet, sought out a recruiter. Only four of the five Tarbet boys returned from war in the Pacific and Europe.
When he was 3, Zach and his sister Allie took a family trip to Wilmington, N.C. There, they boarded the U.S.S. North Carolina, a floating war museum that peppered the skies in every major skirmish of the Pacific Ocean from 1940 to 1945. Tarbet, who had never served on the ship, gave his family a guided tour by phone from his home in Green.
“He loved destroyer duty,” Welton, 74, said of his dad.
Zach enjoyed visits to his great-grandfather’s home. He learned much from military albums and memorabilia. But it wasn’t until Tarbet passed in 2013 at 91 that the family discovered his service medals and the harrowing tales behind them.
Tarbet’s mother (Zach's great-great grandmother) died of a gas leak from a brand new refrigerator. The sailor found out three months later. Through untold tragedy, that always bothered him, Welton said. Twice his ships sank in the Pacific. Once, he ran back to his sleeping quarters after a torpedo strike to grab his freshly spit-shined shoes before leaping off the deck into shark-infested waters, where he huddled with his men for three days.
“Oh no. It wasn’t something he talked about,” Welton said.
Reach Doug Livingston at 330-996-3792 or email@example.com.