When Bill Pellenz went to his 50th class reunion at Port Jefferson High School a few years ago he was impressed by the plaques that acknowledged former students who had gone onto do great things.
While he thought they were fitting tributes, he also thought something was lacking.
He noticed that there weren’t enough to honor students and staff who served in the military.
“I thought there has to be more than one or two people,” he said.
Pellenz, who lives in Sound Beach, did some research and he found that over 60 of the 538 graduates in his class alone had served in the military.
“If there were that many in my class,” he said. “How many would there be since 1894 when the school was established?”
That’s when he hatched an idea.
idea becomes reality
Fast forward two years, to this Thursday, May 30, the Port Jefferson School District is now honoring its heroes with an Armed Forces Tribute for those who served.
A ceremony was held at Port Jefferson High School, where district and government officials made remarks, the Middle School band performed, and Edna Louise Spear Elementary School students shared poetry written especially for the occasion.
According to Superintendent Paul Casciano, the district chose May 30 for the special event because that was the traditional date of observance for Memorial Day.
Another public recognition will be held at the site on Saturday, June 22, at 9:30 a.m.
all about the tribute
With his big tribute in mind, Pellenz cued in his life-long friend Jim Henke, also a Port Jefferson graduate and Vietnam Veteran. The two presented their idea to the school to recognize all graduates of the district who served in the military.
A committee was formed of school staff and officials, including Pellenz and Henke.
The project took two years to become a reality. The result is a monument that will honor veterans from Port Jefferson School District both past and present.
The tribute takes the form of a large boulder with a plaque fastened to the side The plaque expresses the district’s pride and gratefulness for the students and employees who served throughout the nation’s history.
The centerpiece is framed by a red brick walkway.
One part of the walkway is called the Royal Court of Courage with the names of individuals who served in the military who either worked at the school or who were students. The 8×8-inch bricks also include emblems of each branch of service.
The second part is called the Path of Honors for people who want to support the funding of the tribute by purchasing a brick to inscribe the name of someone who served but was not part of the school system.
People were able to buy the 4×8-inch bricks through a form available on the school website to honor a veteran of their choice.
The design came out of committee discussions. The boulder that serves as the centerpiece was found, according to Dr. Casciano, in the woods by Edna Louise Spear Elementary School. He said that Sheep Pasture Nursery moved the boulder to its current location, and Alan E. Fricke Memorials made the plaque.
An Eagle Scout is making benches for the tribute that will be ready to install in June. A new flag pole was also installed along with lighting and a small garden.
the ultimate sacrifice
While the tribute will honor all who serve, living and dead, Pellenz and Henke set out to compile a list of those students who made the ultimate sacrifice for the country — or were prisoners of war.
They amassed a list of 21 Port Jefferson graduates who died in service — either killed in action or while in the military when they died — or were POWs.
Pellenz put all of his findings into a document that includes biographical information about the soldier, their service and a picture from their yearbook if available.
The document: Complete List May 13, 2019 Photo Bio Plaques
The list stretches back from Irving Wilson Ritch Jr., class of 1904, who was killed in action during a battle in France in WWI on Sept. 6, 1918, forward to James D. Sparks who died while serving in the U.S. Navy from injuries he sustained while resupplying a research station in Antarctica on Jan. 30, 1995.
Pellenz admits that the list might not be totally conclusive or complete. He said putting together the names was not easy. He found that not all service member information is publicly available, especially when a soldier dies in action.
He had to scour records, go through local newspaper archives, and research American Legion Halls.
““It’s difficult to get information like that,” Pellenz said.
Casciano said that the idea to use bricks to remember those who served also provided them flexibility if new names were uncovered over time.
“We were afraid names would emerge of people who served,” he said. “This way we could add them.”
The cost to create the tribute came entirely from donations. Casciano said that the main fundraiser was selling the bricks. They also got a generous donation from Tara Inn of about $7,600. In total they raised over $30,000.
A local legacy
Tom Capodanno, who is a Port Jefferson resident, donated two bricks for the tribute. He’s also a graduate and has a son currently in the district.
“When I heard about the project, I jumped right on it.”
Capodanno’s family has deep roots in the Port Jefferson area. He is one of ten children and his family moved to the village in 1979. He and three of his younger siblings attended school in the district. Tragically, his father died in a Veterans Hospital only a few days after Capodanno graduated in 1981.
Capodanno is back in the village and now lives right up the road from the school. He became interested in the project as it took shape and thought it would be a great way for his son to remember his own father.
He bought one brick for his father, Albert T. Capodanno, who served both in WWII and Korea.
“My son walks by the area of the memorial daily in his way home,” he said. “I thought it would be a really nice way for him to remember and honor the memory of his grandfather because he never met him.”
The other brick he purchased was for his uncle, Father Vincent R. Capodanno, a chaplain in Vietnam who was killed in action on Sept. 4, 1967. Fr. Capodanno was a war hero who was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of honor and had a Navy ship named in his honor, the USS Capodanno.
There is also a street named after him in Staten Island called Father Capodanno Boulevard. Fr. Capodanno received the Navy Bronze Star medal and the Purple Heart Medal.
Capodanno thinks it’s important to have the memorial on school grounds, saying it was very positive thing for the school district to do for the kids.
“Why not have it at the school where the students can see it and ask questions?” he said. “A lot of kids today grow up not knowing about the sacrifice of men and women who served.”
Pellenz agrees that it’s important to honor the school’s military veterans.
“I try to give all the credit to the veterans I know,” he said. “A lot of them are so humble that they don’t go out of the way to talk about it. They should be recognized.”
photos by Tom Capodanno