Heroes Among Us
Doing some spring cleaning this week, I came across some old photos from early in my high school teaching days. The first few years I taught U.S. History, I invited local World War Two veterans to share their stories with the class. What better way for my young students to connect with the reality of what America has experienced? Pictures of the veterans' first visit to my classroom some 20 years ago are what I found.
Photos below: Deb Beattie, Bill McNamara, and Clovis Delary (left to right) in my classroom, Northfield High School, March 2000; Heman Dole slide Jim Wilson and I made (photo courtesy of the Northfield News); Memorial Day 2022 on the Common, Northfield, Vermont. The obelisk topped by the eagle is the town's Civil War monument, listing all local men who served. The monument was dedicated in 1886.
Since my town of Northfield is home to Norwich University, America's oldest private military school, finding veterans in town was not difficult. Debbie Beattie, the neighbor whose daughter and son-in-law sold us our home in the Falls, served with the Women's Army Corps in the Pacific. Mrs. Beattie described for my students an attack on her base in New Guinea by Japanese aircraft. Her job: censoring GIs' letters home with a razor blade, literally slicing out any references to locations or ships that might assist the enemy. Her maiden name was Mayo, a major Northfield family who used to run the town's hospital. We later learned that her brother, who served in Europe and went missing, was given a funeral--only to turn up later quite alive, having escaped and found his way back home.
Clovis Delary, whom I knew from his plumbing work, fought on Guadalcanal as part of the Marine Corps. A quiet, dignified man with a twinkle in his eye, seeing him on the street you probably wouldn't guess he'd seen fierce combat in the Pacific. I had the privilege of teaching several of Clovis' many grandchildren.
Then there was "Billy Mac"--William McNamara, the magnificent old Irishman who loved using his gift of the Blarney to tell tales from his service days. A Norwich-trained artilleryman, Bill claimed to have fired the first round to hit the enemy during the North Africa campaign, where he won a Silver Star for his actions at Kassarine Pass. Bill won another Silver at Omaha Beach on D-Day, sharing with students how seasick he and the men were as their landing craft approached the beach. But my favorite Billy Mac story was how he captured a BMW motorcycle from the enemy and prevailed upon a Navy buddy to load it for shipment home--only to have it bombed during a dogfight while it was sitting on the beach.
These three local heroes, all of whom have since passed, came home to be vibrant members of their community. I wanted my students to know that the old person with whom they may get impatient driving behind them slowly down the street may be someone to whom they owe their freedom! Such "ordinary" heroes are in fact the extraordinary people who make this country and this world so wonderful.
Going farther back, I learned that the former publisher of the Northfield News, Jim Wilson, was a Civil War and local history expert--and a descendant of Ulysses S. Grant. Jim helped me prepare a presentation for my students that featured details about local Northfield men who served in the GAR--the Grand Army of the Republic, as the Union liked to call its forces. Jim would then show up in full Union army gear, which he would demonstrate for my students. From Jim Wilson I learned that several local men perished in Andersonville, the notorious Confederate prisoner of war camp, including Heman Dole, son of Christopher Dole, for whom Northfield's Dole Hill is named.
This Memorial Day, let us all give thanks to those many heroes who have sprung from our ranks to defend us all. My heart goes out to those defending freedom right now in Ukraine. And our deepest gratitude to those like Heman Dole who made the ultimate sacrifice. May their heroism live in our hearts forever.