Franklin County broke with tradition Monday to observe a tradition, the celebration of Veterans Day.
Students from both the Apalachicola Bay Charter School and the Franklin County School, and more than 75 veterans from throughout the entire county, filled the gymnasium in Eastpoint to capacity in a district-wide program that received high praise from all quarters.
Veterans who served in World War II sat just rows away from those not long ago back from Iraq and Afghanistan, and in between men and woman who helped to fight the nation’s wars in Korea, Vietnam, Kuwait, and other faraway parts.
From the moment that the masters of ceremonies, SWAT President Bria Walker and Student Government Association President Austin Carter, introduced themselves to the audience, there was an extraordinary hush in the enormous room.
The hush would be interrupted by cheers throughout, and occasional tears, and a hearty laugh near the end of the program when three students, Megan Collins, Ursula Countryman and Kendal Meyers, dawned caps from the two American Legion Posts in attendance - Camp Gordon Johnston Post 82 in Lanark Village and Willoughby Marks Post 106 in Apalachicola – to sing the World War II favorite, “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.”
The Franklin School band, under the direction of Karl Lester, was at its poignant best, as it began with playing the national anthem, after the Tyndall Air Force Base Honor Guard presented the colors.
Grant Smith led the audience in the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, his distinctive voice clear and resounding in the hall. Cameron White provided the invocation, asking for gratitude and blessing on the veterans who served the nation.
With the banner of the Students Working Against Tobacco (SWAT) in the background, Tyndall airmen folded the flag to fully commence the heart of the day’s program.
With students from the two schools raising their voices in song, and the band playing the respective themes songs of the five service branches of the military, the veterans rose together as their theme was performed. These men and women could not contain their smiles, and in some cases their tears of joy, as the gym erupted in cheers to see them receive their accolade.
A video from the History Channel followed, projected on a large inflatable screen. The video documented the transformation of Veterans Day since it began as a commemoration of the Nov. 11, 1918 signing of the armistice that ended World War I.
The band played “America the Beautiful” flawlessly, another shining moment in a nearly 90-minute program that was marked by few if any audio or visual glitches.
Eighth graders Morgan Anderson and Josie Kriss together recited the prose poem “It is the Veteran,” reminding everyone that America’s precious freedoms, while enshrined in the Constitution, are ultimately preserved and protected not by their practitioners, but by veterans willing to sacrifice their lives and limbs to do so.
Students from the ABC School sang Lee Greenwood’s hit “Proud to be an American,” and then Melody Hatfield and Countryman walked center stage to sing the 1989 Statler Brothers’ hit “More than A Name on the Wall.”
A cry for peace, the watchword of veterans everywhere, was played in tender tones by the Franklin School fifth grade bell choir, as they performed “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” under the direction of Audrey Gay.
Dressed in red, white and blue skirts, dancers from Pam Nobles Dance Studio moved gracefully to “God Bless America.”
The most somber moment in the ceremony came when students reminded the audience of the cost of service that so many have borne. Senior Cynthia Duncan narrated the meaning of the elaborate place setting of the “Missing Man Table,” decorated and standing in plain glory at the front of the gym.
The five local men who died in the Vietnam War were then honored, with a single student coming forward with a large placard featuring the soldier’s image, and then reciting a short passage on their life and service. The story of Army infantryman Robert Clifford Millender was told by Brandon Walker; Marine Cpl. James Clay by Jaylynn Lyston; Army Pvt. Clifford Rhodes by Trinity Hardy; Army Pvt. Bobby Cato by Vailan Gibbs; and Air Force Master Sgt. Herbert Smith by Chase Taranto.
The program came to a close with a slideshow that included all of the county’s fallen heroes, dating back to World War I, with the band accompanying the visual with the playing of “Each Time They Tell Their Story.”
Senior Jathan Martin closed the program by singing “You Are Our Hero,” with choreographed signing performed by Cayce Daniels, Anna Riley, Adriana Vilchez and Beyla Walker.
Prior to the start of the 10 a.m. program, nearly 60 veterans were treated in the media center to a chicken and biscuit, grits and gravy breakfast, created by the high school culinary arts students together with the lunchroom staff.
Media center specialist Patty Creamer, and her colleagues, together with support from the veterans groups, are widely credited for the success of this first district wide Veterans Day e program, which opened a new chapter in the school’s recent history.
“There must have been 1,000 people here today,” said Army veteran Bill Spohrer, who as a young lieutenant, fluent in French, served as an aide to Brig. Gen. Miller O. Perry in Vietnam in the late 1950s, prior to the nation’s direct involvement in Southeast Asia.
“This is what America is all about,” he said. “Everyone participated. I don’t think I ever appreciated Apalachicola and this county as much as I did today, seeing the honor paid to veterans. It gave me a whole new appreciation for the Apalachicola and Carrabelle areas.