Joe Capron was a young teacher in 1972 when he walked into the principal’s office at Whitehall Elementary School and asked a simple question: Can we have a Memorial Day ceremony at the school?
The principal said yes and a 40-year tradition was born.
“When I first started working at the school nothing happened,” said Capron, a Vietnam veteran. “We always did stuff at the school I grew up in, and thought it would be a good idea to start something here.”
The humble ceremony he started has grown into one of the largest school functions of the year, attracting a few hundred people.
“It just got bigger and bigger and the Legion jumped on board and it grew from there,” Capron said. “It’s one of the biggest celebrations of the school year.”
After Capron retired in 2007, the responsibility of organizing the event fell to David St. Germain, elementary school principal, who has graciously continued the tradition.
“It was always a pleasure and I was pleased to do it,” Capron said. “I thank Dave for picking it up when I left.”
A large crowd of parents, grandparents, and relatives — some of whom attended the same ceremony when they were children — gathered outside the school last Thursday to watch the entire student body pay homage to the men and women who lost their lives in service to their country.
Joining them were local legionnaires, members of Boy Scout Troop 83, former military personnel, Gold Star mother Catherine Aiken, who lost a son in Vietnam and mayor Peter Telisky.
Following a brief introduction, and a rendition of “Happy Birthday,” sung in honor of sixth-grade teacher Daniel Mulholland, local Boy Scouts helped Legionnaire Jim Lafayette lower the American flag and raise the burial flag of Michelangelo Greco Sr., a veteran of World War I.
After the flag had been raised, Telisky addressed the crowd.
“With all the barbecues, sometimes we pass over the true meaning of why’ve we’ve gathered here,” Telisky said. “When I look up at the flag, I think about how many people it’s brought together and the hopes and dreams it represents.
“The dark flag reminds of us of people who didn’t come home and the families that wait for their loved ones to return home.”
Lafayette also took a few moments to explain the significance of the P.O.W./M.I.A. flag.
“The black flag has a place of honor under the (American) flag. It represents our prisoners of war and our missing in action. We don’t know what happened to them,” Lafayette said.
He told them about Harry Marshall Rehm, a World War II veteran from Whitehall, who has been missing since 1950 after his plane was shot down over Korea and he was taken prisoner.
“He is one of tens of thousands of soldiers around the country who are missing,” Lafayette said.
Following the remarks, administrators presented awards to select students in each grade who have displayed traits of positive citizenship.
Teachers and students spent weeks preparing for the event.
Classroom windows were decorated with drawings of American flags and many of the students were dressed in red, white, and blue.
Each grade also prepared a song or poems such as the “Flag Song” and “Flanders Field,” which they performed.
“The kids are great and the teachers do an excellent job,” said Capron.
Asked what lesson he hoped students took away from the ceremony, Capron replied,
“The best way for them to show appreciation for what they’ve (military personnel) done, is to be good citizens.”