“We must never forget.”
That was the theme of Col. George M. Pierce II’s speech during Monday night’s Veterans Day ceremony in the Waterloo High School auditorium.
True to this theme, the city of Waterloo, its park district, school district and VFW and American Legion posts remembered and honored local veterans with military service from 1975 to 1986.
But the school district took the theme to another level with a special surprise presentation to one local veteran who missed out on his high school graduation nearly 70 years ago.
Waterloo school superintendent Jim Helton and the Waterloo School Board gave Waterloo American Legion Commander Roy J. May the proper graduation ceremony he never received in 1944 due to enlisting in the military.
May was presented a cap and gown, tassel and diploma as a ceremonial way of honoring and remembering his service.
“Several years ago, I remembered Roy sharing his history with me regarding enlisting, not graduating, his family, etc.,” Helton explained.
School officials started planning this special presentation, Helton said, and the school board was thrilled with the idea from the start.
During the presentation to May, Helton borrowed a quote from the late W.J. Zahnow, who was superintendent back when the veteran was in school.
Zahnow told graduates that character is “not produced with a diploma. It is a by-product; it is produced in the great manufacture of daily duty to God, your fellow man, and yourself.”
Helton closed by saying: “Roy J. May, let this diploma serve as confirmation of what you have already become; how you’ve lived your life, your character defines you.”
May was honored and surprised by the gesture.Retired Col. George M. Pierce II speaks during the Veterans Day service in the Waterloo High School auditorium. More veterans day photos are featured in this week’s edition of the R-T. (Corey Saathoff photo)
“What a great honor I received from the Waterloo School District, and to have this happen to me on Veterans Day,” he said. “I did not know whether to laugh or cry. And I did both.”
Helton said it is his hope that the district can continue this tradition in the future.
“We know there are other veterans that did the same as Mr. May; we hope this stimulates others to step forward and allow the district to give them their just due,” he said.
Earlier in the ceremony, Helton told the audience that he constantly gets asked why Waterloo schools are open on Veterans Day when others are closed. He explained that it is a district tradition to have veterans come in to speak with students on that day.
“And that in itself is very powerful,” Helton said. “Real life heroes.”
During his speech, retired Air Force Col. Pierce talked of his 40 years in active duty and the changing public perceptions of veterans he’s observed over the years.
Around the time of the Vietnam War, Pierce remembered, “it wasn’t quite as glorious as it is today.”
Pierce said he was instructed not to wear his uniform when off base for fear of negative comments from the public.
“Those are memories I’d rather forget,” he said.
In contrast, while flying home commercial after the first Gulf War, Pierce said he “was so proud” of the gratitude shown by civilians on the plane for his service.
His advice to those in attendance was simple: Just say “thank you” to all veterans for their service, because it wasn’t easy for them or their families.
Pierce also encouraged all those in attendance Monday night to tell others of the importance of honoring veterans.
“It’s our job to remind them that freedom isn’t free,” he said.
Finally, Pierce urged all veterans to share their stories with younger generations.
“Let the young folks out there know the pride you had when you served,” he said. “Let them know it’s OK to be a veteran.”
For photos, that you may view and purchase, from Veterans Day services throughout the area, click here.