Kids learn a special lesson from veterans

As the color guard marched into the gym to open the Veterans Day assembly at Madison School Monday, the students rose to their feet and one Boy Scout snapped his hand to his fore-head in a salute.

He and the other kindergartners through fifth-graders then sat at attention for close to an hour, listening to veterans from many branches of services who served during peace and war discuss their experiences.

Of course the students are too young to comprehend the horrors some of the men who sat before them had seen. And so the veterans focused on the more pleasant aspects of service in the military — seeing the world, forming friendships and having some fun when the opportunity presented itself.

Their comments were at times a history lesson, at times a geography course. The students heard about places like the Galapagos Islands, Tokyo Bay, Okinawa and Incheon Beach.

U.S. Army veteran Jim Nalepa remembered invading Grenada more than 30 years ago. “Now it’s a vacation resort, but at the time it wasn’t,” he said.

Joseph Craig brought home the significance of President Kennedy’s famous inauguration speech, recalling his prompt response to the query of what he could do for his country.

“I tried joining the Marine Corps right away,” he said, but at only 16 he was turned away and had to wait for two years to enlist.

Many echoed the same message of gratitude to the other men seated at the front of the gym.

“Thank you Mrs. McMahon for time and time again remembering us and remembering what we did, and thank you for celebrating the service of these wonderful men here. It’s an honor to be with them year in and year out,” Nalepa said.

“These are the gentlemen that keep our freedom going,” said Bob Blackwell, who served as a Marine in Vietnam and is the new commander of American Legion Post 250. “Remember all these fine gentlemen here and remember always to love your country and to serve it. God bless you.”

Music teacher Susie Lebensorger accompanied the students as they sang the songs of the various branches of the military after the veterans spoke. The songs were a lovely tribute, although I couldn’t help but notice the children’s high, clear voices were strangely at odds with some of the words they sang.

Madison Principal Mindy McMahon opened the assembly by showing students a picture of her father, Neil Davis, who served in World War II and the Korean War, and recalling his advice to always honor veterans and listen to their stories.

“I try to honor his memory of that, and I’m thankful to you and Mrs. Lebensorger and to your teachers and guests for coming out today so we can hear the story of these guests,” she said.

I’ve interviewed many of the veterans that spoke Monday, including George Hogrewe, who served in World War II and has lived in Hinsdale his entire life. He cried in our conference room as he recounted the pain of watching his friends die.

That memory was with me during two touching moments involving Hogrewe that occurred toward the end of the assembly. “Mr. George,” who attended Madison School in 1929 and is a senior reader there, received special recognition in honor of his 90th birthday Nov. 18.

He also offered a moving recitation of “In Flanders Fields” and of “America’s Answer to In Flanders Fields.”

“Remember, kids, remember,” he said as he concluded his reading, and many adults, including this one, wiped their tears away with a sleeve.

Don’t worry, George. Thanks to you and Mindy and the other veterans who were there Monday, we won’t forget. We will never forget.

— Pamela Lannom is editor of The Hinsdalean. This column first appeared on Nov. 14, 2013. Readers can email her at

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Pamela Lannom is editor of The Hinsdalean