For local residents, filling the gymnasium of Central High School for the annual Veteran’s Day program is nothing unusual. It has been an annual rite that Ron Smith, this year’s master of ceremonies, remembered attending as a young student at Central, then as a member of the band in high school, and on through the decades.
But this year’s distinguished keynote speaker, Frank Presfield, was seeing the event through uninitiated eyes when he stepped to the podium on Monday, Nov. 12, and he made his feelings known from the start.
“What a great gathering. This is wonderful,” he said, taking in the scene. “This is what Veteran’s Day is all about.”
Presfield, as the senior vice commander of the Minnesota chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), is the second-highest ranking chapter member in the state, which includes about 50,000 members. He saw combat service as a gunfire control officer aboard a destroyer that was credited with delivering more direct-fire ordinance against North Vietnamese targets than any other ship during the war, sank more than 115 North Vietnamese vessels of various types, and also rescued downed airmen, according to Smith’s introduction.
But Presfield didn’t dwell on any of those experiences. Instead he told the assembled students and community members that gatherings such as these were what veterans, past and present, strove to make possible. He listed off a variety of things that students could do after high school, including college or joining the military, and said the freedom to choose their own path was not something that everyone in the world enjoyed.
“We’re proud, as veterans, that we helped give you that opportunity,” he said, adding that there are those in the world who would like to take that freedom away.
Starting from the Revolutionary War, however, Presfield explained that veterans have stood in defense of freedom against such forces since the country’s founding.
“And look what’s come about,” he said, gesturing to the assembly. “I want each and every one of you in this building to know that veterans are the heart of this country.”
As Presfield finished his remarks, he indicated once again what a special tradition the local community has with its Veteran’s Day ceremony.
“This is amazing what you have here,” he said. “Thank you. I’ve enjoyed it. This is absolutely wonderful.”
In addition to Presfield’s address, the ceremony included recognition of veterans by service and also by era of service, and Smith also called on parents and spouses of veterans to stand and be recognized as well. Senior Tom Messner spoke about his experiences at Boys State, and 8th grader Olivia Hendel, winner of the Patriot’s Pen competition, read her essay.
The high school band provided music, K-12 choir students performed “My Country Tis of Thee,” and the 7-12 grade Men’s Chorus sang a special rendition of “Tell My Father.”
All veterans and their guests were treated to a complimentary luncheon following the ceremony courtesy of Taher Inc., Central’s food service provider.