Students honor veterans in tribute to fallen alumni

At Severn School, 84 graduates who died in battle remembered

November 13, 2001|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

Flanked by a Marine Corps color guard, the 10 elderly veterans stood in the Severn School gymnasium yesterday and their gravelly voices called out the names of 84 classmates who had died in the wars of the 20th century.

To signify the loss, the school had arranged 84 chairs at center court and filled them with current Severn students. As each name was read, a student stood up and walked away, escorted to the door by a Marine sergeant.

After a half-hour, all 84 chairs sat empty, mute testament to the lives lost from this private school in Severna Park that has channeled students to the Naval Academy for almost a century.

Because of that unique connection, Severn School officials say, few other small schools in the nation have lost more alumni to war.

At a Veterans Day tribute yesterday, Severn's 580 students honored those who had gone before them and heard warnings of what they will be called to do in America's new war.

"You young people have had your Pearl Harbor," retired Navy Rear Adm. Edward K. Walker Jr., Severn Class of 1950, told the students, "and you and your generation are now going to step forward to defend this nation, our freedom and our way of life, and carry us to the future."

Walker was an 8-year-old boy living near Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked. His father, a naval officer, was called away, and young Edward climbed to the roof of his house.

"I could see the huge plumes of smoke and the occasional blast," Walker said. "The Japanese planes came over the mountains behind us, and I'm convinced I could actually see the pilots in their cockpits."

Walker later moved to Annapolis and enrolled in the Severn School. About half of his classmates entered the Naval Academy. One of them was Robert B. Pirie Jr., who was acting secretary of the Navy earlier this year and assistant secretary for six years before that.

"This was the Naval Academy preparatory school," Pirie said at yesterday's tribute. "Families who wanted to get their kids into the academy sent them here."

The school, founded in 1914 on the banks of the Severn River, emphasized science and math and prepared students for the academy's rigorous entrance exam. It also prepared them for the physical challenges of the academy, partly out of necessity.

"If everyone didn't play football, we didn't have any football teams," said Pirie.

Severn's reputation is so well known in naval circles that in Herman Wouk's novel The Winds of War, one of the characters, Byron Henry, attends Severn and then the Naval Academy before being killed in the Battle of Midway.

Wouk's story is fiction, but a Severn alumnus was killed in the Battle of Midway - Lt. Cmdr. Lance E. Massey, Severn Class of 1926.

These days, the school sends more students to the Ivy League than to the military academies. Last year, two of the 82 graduates went to military academies and eight enrolled in Ivy League schools.

Severn has 580 students in grades six through 12. Annual tuition is $14,310.

Yesterday, students who sat in the chairs to represent the fallen alumni said the tribute made them realize the role their school played in the wars of the last century and the losses it suffered.

"I can feel the weight of what they accomplished," said Nick Iliff, a Severn junior, who represented Lt. j.g. Richard G. Sigg, a 1943 graduate who died in the Korean War.

Walker told the students, "We can't repay these veterans who gave so much and asked so little, but by honoring them we can carry forward their heritage of dedication, sacrifice, service and courage."

One Severn graduate died in the Spanish Civil War, 73 in World War II, five in Korea and five in Vietnam. "That is really a remarkable number from just one school," said Severn's historian, Bob Gray.

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