By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — Students at Iroquois Middle School, dressed in patriotic red, white and blue, shared laughter and tears with six World War II veterans at the 18th annual Greatest Generation event on April 23.
One student, Jillian Margolies, said she has cried both times she attended the presentation. The eighth-grader counts two World War II veterans and two living Holocaust survivors among her great-grandparents. She said her classroom experiences made the veterans’ stories more vivid.
“We watched social studies videos, and you just imagine those men in those videos,” she said. “It just kind of put their image into those battles.”
This is just the sort of learning experience Dennis Frank, a social studies teacher in his 21st year at the school, hopes to create when he organizes the event each year. Meeting World War II veterans from the community culminates his students’ lessons about the historic period.
But Frank says the veterans love the event, too. “If I don’t give them a call, they get upset,” he said. “They really look forward to it.”
George Williams, a former infantryman and Niskayuna native, said 50 years passed before he was able to talk about his experiences during the war. He told his story for the first time when Frank called three years ago and asked him to meet the students at Iroquois.
“I was finally able to talk about my experience, and it helped my mental health,” Williams said. He told the students about his emotional visit to the Dachau concentration camp, where he witnessed a cremation site.
Ike Refice struggled to choose one of his many stories until his great-nephew, a student at the school, prompted him. “Tell them about Horace!” he suggested.
Refice went on to recount the story of a wounded German soldier he and a friend carried to a nearby field hospital. The soldier recovered from his injury and was taken as a prisoner of war. Years later, the man tracked down Refice and thanked him for his life-saving kindness. The two have since been featured on a book cover together and still keep in touch.
“I can’t explain to you what a fine enemy he was,” Refice said of his now-friend, who resides in Germany.
John Moehle spoke through tears as he described the day he learned the war had ended, just moments before embarking on a dangerous attack against Japan. Returning home, he said, was emotional. “There were huge signs hanging from the buildings: ‘Welcome Home, Job Well Done.’ And here I am today talking to you for the sixth time in a row,” he said.
The assembly had its light moments, as well. “I had just turned 17, and they gave me a proposition that I couldn’t refuse: They said that if I enlisted in the Army Air Corps, they’d give me my high school graduation certificate without taking any exams,” said Dick Gibbons, making the students laugh. Williams amused the students by telling them he and his buddies once captured a German soldier just to ask for directions.
Students asked questions about what the veterans ate during combat, what the weather was like at certain battles and how they felt when they said goodbye to their families. Many students, including some from other classrooms, stayed after school and waited in line to personally meet the veterans.
The ceremony closed with a musical tribute by the seventh- and eighth-grade choir, which performed “Song for the Unsung Hero.”
Frank said the students’ performance for their veteran guests moved him. “I’m glad I was the page turner of the song, because I knew I wouldn’t make it with a dry eye,” he said.