Former ECHS English teacher: ‘The valiant taste death only once’
By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writer
For some of the crowd gathered Saturday, May 13, at McCullough Cemetery, the rapidly climbing temperature and the thick humidity might have brought back a few memories of their time in Vietnam.
But that handful of men, along with several people who never trouped through the steamy jungles of Southeast Asia or trudged up the steep hills within that jungle, braved the elements to remember a brother, other relative or friend who should have, but never did, make it home from the war-torn country that runs from China in the north, to Cambodia in the south.
The gathering of a few more than two dozen men, women and children sat under shade tents as the man in whose high school class many of them studied the English language led a tribute to Rayford Gohagin, the last local military member killed in action during the controversial war.
Gohagin had completed his tour of duty and was ticketed to go home but agreed to stay another month to help train replacement troops.
“We are here to remember Rayford,” began Father Albert Kennington, an Episcopal priest who was the heroic soldier’s teacher during his senior year at Escambia County High School. “I’ve been thinking a good bit about what it means to remember. Think about a jigsaw puzzle, a picture that’s broken into little pieces, then it’s a task to put it together again.
“When you do put it back together, it’s all there, but it’s not the same, because there are little cracks that show. I think the kind of remembering we are asked to do today is that kind of going back — for some of us, more than 52 years, if you knew him when he was in high school. You go way back, and you pull all those memories back and, somehow or another, the picture that has been broken by death is a little bit more whole again, although it’s still not the same.”
Kennington said those who attended the ceremony provided proof that Rayford Gohagin left a lasting impression on most of them, even if it might have taken a while for some of them to realize just how much of an impression.
“The fact that this local of ours that has been gone for so long and was taken from us in such a violent way, but in a way that he gave himself to, means that even the separation of death is but a mystery because we couldn’t think of him at all if there was not something left that lives within us,” he said. “I remember him as a student in my second-period, twelfth-grade English class in the fall of 1965. He sat in the middle row, back desk.
“Why do I remember that? I don’t know, but I do remember him well and I’m honored to be invited to speak today.”
Prior to Kennington’s remarks, Atmore Mayor Pro Tem Shawn Lassiter (District 5) read a recently issued municipal proclamation designating the day as Celebration of the Life of Rayford Gohagin Day in the city. Lassiter’s father, Billy, was also one of Kennington’s students and a classmate of Rayford Gohagin.
The proclamation also paid tribute to the area’s other servicemen killed in Vietnam: Cpl. Richard Benjamin; SP5 Jack Elliott Clemons; PFC Larry Eugene Gonzalez; SP4 James Matthew Kelly; PFC Allen Twiggs Merritt IV (better known as Allen Gandy); SGT Elmer Jack Taylor, and SP4 Larry Benjamin Thomas.
Bonnie Latino, who helped organize the event as a member of the ECHS Class of 1966, was supposed to deliver the keynote address but was stricken ill earlier in the day and had to go the local hospital’s emergency room for hydration.
The ceremony, which opened with the strains of The Star-Spangled Banner by bugler Mack Henley, was attended by Carlos and Milford Gohagin, Rayford’s surviving brothers (Buford and Howard are deceased), as well as Rayford’s widow, Connie Dorriety, and several cousins, other relatives and friends.
There were also individuals like Emilie Mims, who traveled from her North Carolina home to be there, even though she and the honoree weren’t close friends.
“I did not know Rayford really well,” recalled the former Escambia County Judge of Probate, who was one of the students transferred to ECHS from Huxford. “All of us that went to the Atmore school from Huxford just had a short period of time to get to know the Atmore people. I remember him as being such a kind, sweet, very quiet person, and I just wanted to be here today to remember Rayford.”
Kennington switched from minister to teacher for his final remarks, citing Shakespeare, the Bible and the ECHS alma mater.
“My closing thoughts are from Shakespeare,” he said. “The line that has come back to me is not from Macbeth, but from the second act of Julius Caesar, “Cowards die many times before they’re dead, but the valiant taste of death only once. That rises up in my memory today, as does John 15, which says, “Greater love no man has than this, that he lay down his life for a friend.” That’s exactly what Rayford did. He didn’t even know the friends for whom he was doing it, except for his loved ones back here at home.”
He then led the ECHS graduates present in singing the school’s alma mater, with accent on the second verse, before Henley closed out the ceremony with a rousing rendition of When the Saints Go Marching In.