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Powerful West High assembly pays tribute to those who served

A tear falls from nose ZebBeaver from Crown Point IN as he is comforted by Mary Patterswhose sChris was his

A tear falls from the nose of Zebon Beaver from Crown Point, IN as he is comforted by Mary Patterson whose son Chris was in his squad when he was killed in January this year during a Veteran's Day Assembly at West Aurora High School on Friday, November 9, 2012. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: December 12, 2012 6:34AM

I want to personally thank Dr. Rudy Keller.

After such a divisive election season, it’s easy to get disillusioned with our country — to not only listen to the simpering and whimpering about how we’re going to hell in a hand basket, but to jump in with our own set of swipes and gripes.

Fortunately, we all have that right to express negative and nasty opinions here in America. And on Friday morning I was reminded of just who was responsible for those freedoms by a Brigadier General, a Congressional Medal of Honor Winner and a pair of Gold Star parents from North Aurora.

They were among the hundreds of students, staff, veterans and community members who packed the gymnasium at West Aurora High School for a powerful Veterans Day assembly — the brainchild of Keller, West High’s interim coprincipal.

Keller told me he never served in the military, but he’s always felt a strong sense of patriotism that kicked into overdrive after the terrorist attacks in 2001. Waubonsie Valley High School experienced that fervor when he was principal there. So it was probably no surprise that, when he came on board after retirement to temporarily help lead West a year ago, he’d bring that same passion to his new position.

But this year’s program was especially compelling because one of West High’s own was killed this past January in Afghanistan. Twenty-year-old Army Spc. Christopher Patterson, the victim of an IED explosion that also took the lives of three other soldiers, was not only a 2009 graduate of West High, but his mother Mary also works in the school’s front office.

Keller puts a huge amount of effort into these Veterans Day events, but every minute, he insisted, is well worth it. From the singing of the National Anthem by Chicago Blackhawks’ legend Jim Cornelison that kicked off Friday’s assembly to the playing of “Taps” by a young Marine at its conclusion, the 90-minute program was a tear-jerker so powerful in its message of service and sacrifice, I have to believe more than a few young men and women in that audience will answer the call.

In fact, against a backdrop of soul-stirring patriotic music provided by the school’s Wind Symphony and A Capella Choir, as well as the United States Air Force Band Starlifter, that was the message put forth by Vietnam Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. Allen Lynch; and Brigadier Gen. Brian Copes, Joint Chief of Staff, Indiana National Guard. Both men, in words that clearly came straight from their hearts rather than teleprompters or note cards, reminded students the freedoms generations of Americans fought for will be lost if their generation does not pick up the mantle.

“Few today are willing to accept or endure,” Copes told the hushed crowd. “Never have so many been defended by so few.”

The purpose of the assembly, said Keller, was to help students understand the freedoms they take for granted really aren’t free. No one realizes that more than Mary and Bob Patterson, who on Friday watched with tears in their eyes as artist Tim Botts created a special calligraphy depicting “God, Country, Music” in honor of their son. With the symphony playing “Danny Boy” as the artist drew this gift for these Gold Star parents, some members of Christopher’s Indiana-based National Guard Unit openly wept as images of their fallen brother flashed across a big screen.

In fact, emotions could be seen on the faces of many.

“I might go re-enlist,” said a teary Dave Zine, social studies teacher at West High who already served a decade in the Air Force, after listening to Copes’ powerful keynote address.

Even those not at the assembly knew there was something special going on at West High on Friday, as over 2,000 flags were planted on the school ground and a huge American flag draped proudly across the building.

“Last night coming home from work I stopped at West, leaned against the fence and shed a tear for those who have given the ultimate sacrifice ,” wrote a Vietnam veteran to school administrators in an e-mail. “Thank you and please pass on to everyone who participated ... how proud I am of the student body ...”

It’s feedback like this that makes Keller happy. “We owe (veterans) our freedom,” he said. “We owe them our gratitude.”

And we owe this patriotic principal our thanks, as well — for that much-needed reminder.

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