In the Spirit of Memorial Day

Special words by George O’Toole

Sunday evening, November 9th, 2003. Our junior class at St. Sebastian’s had landed in Washington D.C. earlier that afternoon for the school’s annual junior year field trip to the nation’s capital. After checking into our hotel, we assembled in the lobby for a night-time tour of the major D.C. monuments.

Bus trips with the young men of St. Sebastian’s can be quite memorable. And, shall we say, exuberant.

We boarded our bus at the U.S. Naval Memorial and began our tour with the US Capitol building and then the White House, followed by the memorials: WWII, Thomas Jefferson, MLK, Korean War, and Lincoln. All very impressive, but there were still times at each when the faculty chaperones had to step in to restore proper decorum. Until our final stop: the Vietnam Memorial.

As we got off the bus, I was in a small group that included James. Almost immediately he shushed us as he noticed something was different from the other war memorials we’d visited. There had been a few other visitors besides our group at the World War II and Korean War memorials, but there were more at this one. They mostly stood alone, rather than in small groups. James recognized right away what was happening. These were veterans of the Vietnam War, here, two nights before Veterans’ Day, to pay their respects to the friends they lost. As some of us continued our conversations, I noticed James break off and start towards a man who was standing by himself, face-to-face with the wall, looking for the names of members of his platoon.

James approached the man and extended his right hand. The man looked up, shook James’ hand, and nodded. James then moved ahead to the next vet. Several of us rushed to catch up with him. We reached him as his was extending his hand to the second veteran. I heard him say: “Thank you sir, you’re a hero.” A few of us then did the same, and we followed James as he led a group of us down the entire Vietnam Memorial, thanking these brave men for their sacrifice and, hopefully, reminding them that they weren’t alone that night.

That was James. He was always one to reach out to others, include them in the moment (or inject himself into the moment; he was good at that too). Sebs’ bus trips were always memorable. Thanks to James, this is one I will always remember most.

The motto of St Sebastian’s School is: “The order of the day is to love God, work hard, and take good care of one another.” James hit all three. “Working hard” can mean several things. It can mean taking another AP course or strenuously working out in the off season to become a starter or reading that next chapter to get ahead of the class. But it can also mean having the courage to step out of your comfort zone in order to do what you think is right or to take good care of another. That’s what James’ did at the Vietnam memorial that evening. And while that might not be the “dictionary definition”, I’d challenge anyone to come up with a better demonstration of “loving God.”

It’s not the same without James. He was always great at lighting up a room with his infectious smile and enthusiastic attitude. The life of the party, some might say (himself included). I’ll never forget all the fun I shared with him over the years. But, more importantly, I’ll never forget the lesson in humility and love that he taught me that Sunday evening at the Vietnam Memorial.