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Archbishop Walsh Academy honors its veterans with Military Wall of Honor

Thu, Nov 16th 2017 11:00 am

 By TOM DINKI, Olean Times Herald

OLEAN — Archbishop Walsh Academy honored three graduates who died in Vietnam and laid out plans to honor all its alumni veterans Thursday with the unveiling of its new Military Wall of Honor.

Ahead of Veterans Day this weekend, school officials and community members attended a dedication ceremony for the wall, which is located in the hallway outside the school's St. Sebastian Chapel and includes individualized plaques for three Walsh graduates. The men named would have celebrated their 50th anniversary reunion this summer but died fighting for the U.S. Army in the Vietnam War: Ralph Bigelow, Thomas Drum and Ivan Febo-Betancourt.

Members of St. Bonaventure University's ROTC program, the Allegany American Legion and local Boy Scouts were on hand for the unveiling, which also included a flagpole ceremony outside the school with Walsh and Southern Tier Catholic School students.

"I think it's our duty to recognize the services they've done and honor them every chance we get," said Joann McAndrew, a member of the school's Board of Trustees and Walsh Class of 1972 graduate who helped spearhead the project. "By putting the wall there, it's a permanent placement and a permanent record of the students that came here and graduated and went on to serve our country."

The school is trying to identify any other Walsh graduates who died in the line of the duty, as they too would receive an individualized plaque. The wall also includes plaques for U.S. Army, Air Force, Coast Guard, Marine Corps and Navy veterans that school officials hope to fill in with names of Walsh graduates who served. School officials ask veterans or families of deceased veterans to contact them if they would like a name placed on the wall.

Board of Trustees Treasurer John Whelpley and his wife, Karen, donated the plaques.

McAndrew said the idea to honor Bigelow, Thomas and Febo-Betancourt came from fellow members of the Class of 1967.

"They're the ones that brought it to the school's attention seven or eight years ago. ... So as part of that the school had offered to put plaques up, but it kind of got lost by the wayside," McAndrew said. "Then it came to our attention at the last reunion (this summer) that no plaques had been put up. It filtered over to the board of directors and I said, 'Well, we need to finish what we started.'"

Several members of the Class of '67 — as well as James Bigelow, the brother of Ralph Bigelow and a 1970 Walsh graduate — spoke during Thursday's ceremony. John Shine, '67, recalled memories of Bigelow and Drum, who were both 21 when they died, and Febo-Betancourt, who died one day before his 19th birthday.

"All three of these guys had one thing in common: They were always smiling, laughing, they were gentle," Shine said. "These are the kids that were with us here. We loved them all and they gave love back."

Jim Metzler, '67, who also served in the Air Force for 26 years, said attending the ceremony was a honor but also difficult and emotional.

"Some real authentic heroes walked the halls of this school and we should all be very grateful for it," he said. "This is important stuff. It is really vitally important to remember and honor our shared history of Walsh men and women in uniform, and to express our real gratitude for their service."

State Sen. Catharine Young, R-Olean, attended the ceremony and said many of the Vietnam War veterans who did make it home "were not treated in the way they should have been."

"Yet they were people that went off and fought on behalf of our country and we should always take the time to recognize and honor all of our veterans, but especially those who gave the ultimate sacrifice," she said. "We need to tell our Vietnam War veterans everyday how much we love them and we thank them. ... This is an expression of love and thanks today."

McAndrew, who said her father, brother and uncles served in the military, said she feels it's the school's duty to honor its veterans.

"I can't imagine putting your life on the line, I can't imagine what they've gone through," she said. "And they're kids. One day they're out here playing football, the next day they're out there fighting with a gun in their hand."

(Contact reporter Tom Dinki at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter, @tomdinki)

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