Tonawanda News

November 8, 2013

Saluting those among us

By Jill Keppeler
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — Some of those honored Thursday at St. Christopher’s School in Tonawanda served decades, even centuries ago. Some were sitting right there in the audience.

But either way, they all got their moment during the Veterans’ Tribute, the school’s annual acknowledgement of the close ties between its students, faculty and the many members of the U.S. armed forces and their families.

Teacher Jessica Graham, who organized the event, said some of those honored during the presentation were also on the list last year, while others were new.

“Some, because of their military service, have up and left the area, and we have some new families,” she said. “We have a lot of direct connections.”

A video presentation listed the dozens of names of service members past and present, all related to students or faculty of the school. Some were shown with photos: Smiling with their families, somber in uniform, against a background of sand or sky. They served in the American Revolution, the Civil War, World Wars I or II, the Vietnam War, in Korean, Iraq, Afghanistan ... in the Navy, Air Force, Army or Marine Corps.

The presentation — which ended with the words, “We will never forget” — was the work of seventh-grade students at the school with the assistance of their computer teacher. Seventh-graders also presented a performance of the song “American Tears,” performed as part of the color guard for the ceremony, and contributed poetry to the event program. Eighth-grade students spoke about the Gettysburg Address and contributed other work.

Graham said that the teachers worked together to use the event as a learning experience for their students, teaching them not only lessons connected to literature and history, but as part of the school’s character program, “How to be good citizens, belief and faith and civic duty, and appreciation for those who have served.”

The day’s guest speaker was Brian Castner of Grand Island, an Iraq War veteran who is the author of “The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows.”

Castner told the students about being a bomb technician during the conflict, but focused Thursday on a previous war, pointing out the red poppy on his lapel, explaining what it means and reciting the first lines of “In Flanders Field.”

“What can we do for those men and women? The only thing we can really do is remember,” he told them. “Study hard in school, pay attention in history class, in social studies. ... Make sure you study so you understand what their sacrifices were, and then you can really have gratitude for that.” 

Students Jack Gembala and Richard Konopczynski, both seventh-graders, both clad in their tan Boy Scout uniforms, served as part of the honor guard that escorted the American flag into the church. Both also had fathers honored that day: Gembala’s father, Peter Gembala, served in the Army, and Konopczynski’s father serves in the U.S. Air Force Reserve.

“They deserve this honor for their service to their country, (for what they’ve done) to protect a safe life for us,” Konopczynski said.

Maj. Richard Konopczynski III said he found himself tearing up a little during the musical performance.

“I think it was really heartwarming,” he said. “It’s a great honor, and I think it’s great the teachers do this every year.”