On the morning of Thursday, Nov. 8, students, staff and the Webster Groves community gathered in Knight Auditorium to celebrate and honor those who have risked their lives for our country, veterans.
The annual Veteran’s Day assembly, coordinated by social studies teacher Terry Verstraete, began 16 years ago. Verstraete, who has taught Military History for 20 years, was inspired to start the program by his own grandfather, a World War II veteran.
“My grandpa had told me a bunch of stories when I was in high school, about how he captured German soldiers and what he had done in Europe,” Verstraete said.
Over the years, the program has seen immense growth. In fact, the number of participating veterans has tripled.
“When it started off, I had 15 veterans, and now we are up to about 50 that come in and talk to the kids,” Verstraete said.
“We stagger at the eternal debt we owe to the untold number of Americans who chose to set aside their personal ambitions and dreams to assure the well-being of the nation.”
-Anonymous quote from Veteran’s Memorial in social studies hallway
The preparation for the event generally begins three to four weeks prior, taking up an additional sum of Verstraete’s time. About the time he spends planning the event, Verstraete said, “For the first few weeks before Veteran’s Day, planning is pretty constant. I would say it takes up about 20 percent of my week, each week.”
The process starts with Verstraete’s personal invitation to 130 veterans around the area. Many returning veterans have a connection to WGHS; whether that be to past or present students, staff members or Verstraete himself.
Of that 130, 50 veterans typically come to the event to share their stories and answer questions, dispersed throughout social studies classrooms around the school.
On what keeps veterans returning to WGHS, Verstraete said, “I’ve been told on several occasions that this program is the gold standard. These are their (veteran’s) words. These are not my words. What they said was, is that they like the way it’s set up.”
Another key aspect of the event is the first-hour assembly coordinated by Verstraete, alumni director Pat Voss and others.
This year, the assembly focused on honoring African Americans in the military throughout history, specially highlighting those from Webster Groves. At the assembly, several students shared heroic stories of African Americans who have served.
The WGHS choir closes the assembly by performing “America the Beautiful” and “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Veteran’s Day coordinator, Terry Verstraete, welcomed all in attendance to the first hour celebration, followed by speeches from several students such as senior Evan Palmer. Photos by Emily Stisser
On the impact of the assembly Verstraete said, “We give speeches, and we do music, there is a lot of veterans there that are crying at the end of that.”
Several groups from the music department contributed to the assembly, such as Chamber Choir, WGHS Choir, Wind Symphony, Silver Strings and Statesman String Ensemble.
Verstraete explained WGHS has a very unique Veteran’s Day program in comparison to other schools in the area, according to many returning veterans.
For example, Verstraete said, “You might have five veterans and you go talk to them, you find them. As opposed to here, where every veteran is giving a story to every kid in this building.”
On the factors that keep veterans returning to WGHS, Verstraete said, “In this class [his classroom], we had a Vietnam guy with a World War II guy. Some other classes might be Korea with an Iraq veteran. So I try and separate them. I try and get three to four veterans [in each classroom]. They will give their perspective, but every kid in this building has a social studies class.”
On his connection with returning veterans, Verstraete shared, “Every year it’s the same thing, when they walk out of here, you know they’re always the ones thanking me but I’m the one that thanks them, I just say, ‘Thanks for your service, appreciate everything you did, and we’re gonna see you next year.’”
“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and success of liberty.”
-John F. Kennedy
Although most social studies teachers remain in their classrooms all day, Verstraete instead has a substitute while he helps around the building in various ways. After Veteran’s Day, the reflection Verstraete’s classes share deeply contributes to his personal significance of the event.
“I come into classes and then I just see all the kids are paying attention, and when I was asking questions about ‘what’d you learn’ everybody had answers. They got something out of it. So they got something out of it, the veterans felt appreciated, the students recognized these individuals and what they did, and that’s all I can ask for,” Verstraete said.
About the value of continuing the event, Verstraete said, “I think it’s just continuing recognition of these individuals who served something bigger than themselves. Sending that message to the rest of this community, that being in the military is more than just going and getting in a uniform and maybe fighting or maybe not, it’s about serving a bigger purpose, in this case serving the people of this country.
“Listening to those stories, some of these people didn’t have it easy, they sacrificed a lot, and it wasn’t just their life. It might have been a marriage, or it might have been a friendship, or it might have been kids.”
This will be Emily Stisser’s secomd year on ECHO staff, but she made several contributions while taking journalism class her sophomore year.
Visit Our Sponsors