As school closes, Vietnam memorial needs a new home.
Stand outside an old school and imagine roll calls through the decades. We forget the names, but can guess the responses.
Last weekend, I went back to Cardinal Dougherty on North Second Street to see the monument that bears my brother’s name and the names of the 26 other men from that high school who were killed in the Vietnam War.
What lay before me was the opposite of what I usually encounter whenever my wanderings bring me into contact with childhood touchstones. Old houses where I lived or fields were I played invariably strike me as being tinier than I remember. Not Dougherty, whose disheveled complex spans a chunk of Olney.
I was supposed to meet somebody who would let me get a close look at the school’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a slab of granite about 58 inches long, 48 inches high, and 8 inches thick that rests on a concrete base. Above the chiseled names is the inscription: “In honor of the Cardinal Dougherty High School graduates who died in Vietnam in the service of their country.”
I never met my connection, so I stood outside the locked front gate gazing across the length of half a football field at the monument that’s been on the mind of veterans and the families of those killed in action since the school’s closing was announced last October.
“What popped into my head was what’s going to happen to the monument?” said Joe Crescenz, whose brother, Army Cpl. Michael Crescenz (Class of 1966), is on the memorial and is the only Philadelphian awarded the Medal of Honor from the Vietnam War.
Members of the Rising Sun Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2819 in the Lawncrest section, many of them Dougherty graduates, wanted to know as well. They follow the code: Do not leave the fallen behind.
So they petitioned the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to let them move the monument about 21/2 miles away to their property. When and exactly how that move will take place is still being worked out.
“The school closes on the 18th of June,” William J. Eves, also Class of 1966 and a trustee of the post, told me. “The archdiocese’s Realtor takes over on the 30th of June. That’s the window that we have and we’re working with the union to move it.”
That would be the Ironworkers Local 401, which is donating its time and expertise. There’s talk about an escort that would include various veterans groups and police from the 35th District.
Then, Eves said, “we’re going to cover it with a tarp, and then rededicate it on Veterans Day.”
This would be the second time that a solemn roll call, sounded against the backdrop of flapping flags, would highlight a rededication. The school hosted a huge ceremony on Nov. 9, 1989 – the same day the Berlin Wall fell.
About 40,000 students attended Dougherty from its opening in September 1956 until this year. At peak enrollment, the 1965-66 school year, the building housed about 6,100 students, says Mike Prendergast, Class of 1969 and the head of Dougherty’s alumni group. He estimates that 2,000 to 2,500 graduates served in the armed forces.
When my brother Chick graduated in 1967, Dougherty was the biggest Catholic high school in the world, and change came ever so slowly to the institution. One thing did change, though, by the time I’d graduated in 1975. The men who were killed in Vietnam were remembered, first with a plaque by the main doors, later on the monument.
Nobody can say when that was installed. No official record exists. Of course, in those days – the mid-’60s to the 1980s – nobody much wanted to deal with Vietnam’s legacy. Like a lot of veterans, Eves survived both war and peace.
“We were vilified, and the public was hostile toward us,” Eves recalled. “That’s just a horrible feeling to think that your society is not behind you.”
“I remember going shopping in the old Cheltenham Mall where the old Gimbels was,” said Crescenz, Class of 1974. He recalled seeing two soldiers in dress greens. “I was astounded by how people would be calling them names.”
Attitudes evolve. Eves told me about a recent visit he made to the Holicong Middle School in Doylestown. “Now they embrace us and treat us like heroes,” he says.
Heroes who refuse to leave anyone behind. So they will carry the granite that holds the names of the fallen, rescue it from becoming part of the debris of an abandoned school. They will have their Veterans Day ceremony and salute 27 times. Aging and sturdy men who believe in honor and who vow that the memories of their fallen comrades – and classmates – will remain, for them, ever present.