By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Report
If Perdido Elementary & Middle School’s annual salute to veterans gets much bigger, school officials will need to petition the Baldwin County School Board for a new gym.
Principal Phillip Stewart said there is a good reason that seating was at a premium, parking spaces almost as scarce, for this year’s Veterans Day observance.
“We’ve grown, student-wise,” he said. “We’ve added at least 100 or more students since last year. We have five portables (classrooms), and we really need more. Since I’ve been here — the last 10 years — it has continued to grow. As you can see, we’ve got all our seats filled up, and there’re still people coming in.”
Each of the seats reserved for veterans was filled, every inch of bleacher seating was taken up. Veterans and other visitors lined two walls of the gym, while students from the upper classes sat four-deep along the northern wall.
“We’re a small community, and a lot of the people know each other, so Veterans Day may have a little deeper meaning for us, knowing the stories of some of these guys,” Stewart said.
Gifted Teacher Lisa Hurley, who organized the program for the second year, said the students annually buy into the Veterans Day concept and love taking part in the program.
“Each year, we try to make it better than the year before,” she said. “For our students, this is their time to shine. They’re proud of our veterans, and that’s what we try to teach them and instill in them. So, when they get to do their part, the singing part of our program, that’s what they look forward to.”
The youngest students again took their places at the school’s entrances, waving flags and thanking everyone who attended for their service, whether that person was a veteran or not.
Before Lt. Col. David “Adam” McGhee delivered the keynote address, the student body took control of the program, performing every task except the singing of the National Anthem, which was handled by Melody Ganey of Perdido Baptist Church.
Gavin Brandt, an 8th-grader, offered the invocation; an Air Force JROTC Color Guard from Baldwin County High presented the colors, and Kaligan Larkin, an 8th-grade Boy Scout from Troop 78, led the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance.
The middle school band, directed for the sixth year by Tyler Williams, performed “Battle Hymn of the Republic” between the reading of 8th grader Emma Leigh Etheridge’s Patriots Pen Essay Contest entry and 4th grader Eowyn Allen’s USS Alabama Essay Contest entry.
Students in grades 1-5 sang “Grand Ole Flag” prior to McGhee’s speech, then followed the keynote address with the ever-popular “Armed Forces Medley.” Veterans stood as their branch’s theme was sung.
A Civil Engineer with more than 18 years of U.S. Air Force service, McGhee is responsible for designing and installing the infrastructure for USAF bases around the world. As he waited his turn, the Perdido alumnus eyed the huge, raucous crowd.
“I’ve been a commander a couple of times, so I’ve spoken in front of large crowds,” he said. “I’m not a stranger to it, but it’s still a little nerve wracking.”
His remarks included a slide show that featured bases he had helped build in South Korea, Portugal’s Azores archipelago and Germany.
“I’m super-proud of you,” he said after offering a joke and asking questions of the youngsters. “I’m inspired by America because of the men and women sitting here in this audience who raised their right hand and swore they would support and defend our Constitution and preserve our freedoms. I’m also inspired by boys and girls like you.”
Following the armed forces medley, upper-grade students Brennan Parker, Phillip Allen and Chloe Gatlin recited the meaning of the POW/MIA Table that stood alone in a corner of the gym.
Two other special guests — Baldwin County Superintendent of Education Eddie Tyler and former teacher Gerri McDonald, who started the Perdido program — were in attendance.
“Our main goal is to say thank you for your service and your willingness to serve,” the principal said to the veterans. “This is an important time for us as well because it gives us an opportunity to say thank you in front of our student body, and an opportunity for students to see just how valuable you are, not only to the community and the school, but to this country at well.”
Tyler explained after 7th-grade bugler Jackson Ziegler closed the program with “Taps” why he chose to attend the Perdido event nearly every year, although the Baldwin County system consists of 47 schools.
“Perdido is special — the community, school, the tradition here, like this veteran (McGhee) came from Perdido and there were probably a lot of others sitting in the seats that are from here, too,” he said. “It’s a family school.”
“I just love coming here. Every place probably has a Veterans Day program, but some places embrace it more than others. I think Perdido is one of those places that truly embraces the meaning of Veterans Day.”
Adding a touch more flair to the event was the presence of a three-generation trio of servicemen — Ray Linam, son Todd Linam and grandson Caleb Linam — as well as the presence of Hayley Thomley, her brother Joseph Thomley and her grandfather Braxton Thomley, the first time the three had all attended the event at the same time.
The assemblage gathered after the event in the school cafeteria, where CNP staff members served finger foods, vegetables, dips, sweet treats, punch, coffee and water.
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