When John McCain met with Eastmont students
The passing of Sen. John McCain has consumed the national discussion in recent days. There is an interesting local connection to this authentic American patriot. McCain acted with honor despite being tortured as a prisoner of war and who, as a public servant, championed the idea that our country’s greatness was earned by our efforts to act with decency, morality and a sense of justice. We haven’t always lived up to those ideals, but we have never stopped trying.
A brilliant idea by the late Bob Parlette to create a local version of Tom Brokaw’s “The Greatest Generation” book launched an initiative that brought together local veterans with high school students dedicated to help them tell their stories. Eastmont English teacher Allison Agnew jumped at the opportunity and that started the “Honor by Listening” project that resulted in several books filled with the wartime stories of North Central Washington veterans.
Word got back to Brokaw about the program and he dispatched his producer to visit the valley and speak with the students and students in turn were invited back to New York to meet with Brokaw.
In November 1999, Agnew and a group of students from Eastmont High traveled to Seattle to meet with McCain, who took time out of his presidential campaign to speak with the students and autograph books for them. To get some more perspective, I reached out via Facebook to see if I could scare up any students who wanted to talk about their experiences.
One of those responding was Chelsea Waliser, who, as an Eastmont student, had the opportunity to interview the late Don Moos about his World War II experiences and Parlette about his time in Vietnam. “Up until last week, John McCain was one of my two living political heroes. The other is Barack Obama,” Waliser wrote.
“What I admired most about these two leaders is what I believe they had in common, in spite of being from different parties and generations — their independence and clear vision for America. That John McCain would sit and talk to a group of high school kids — few of whom were old enough to vote in the primary he was visiting our state for — said everything about his priorities and values, and that those were something that were bigger than politics and an individual election, “ she added.
The Honor By Listening project continued, even after Agnew left Eastmont for a teaching job on the west side of the Cascades.
Ken Zontek from Cashmere took up the mantle next and students from his classes produced several books.
Meanwhile, retired Navy Capt. Allen Brady, who was one of the senior POWs at the Hanoi Hilton, had moved to the Wenatchee Valley with his wife Dianne. Brady, Parlette and Sharratt decided that the Wenatchee Valley ought host the first-ever reunion of that group of individuals. It was the first time that elite group got together.
Seventeen of 19 eligible individuals were able to attend that reunion in 2001, but McCain and retired Navy Vice Admiral James Stockdale were unable to be there. The list of attendees included some of the most decorated soldiers of that era, including Brig. Gen. Robbie Risner (an eight-foot statue of Risner can be found on the campus of the U.S. Air Force Academy), Navy Rear Adm. Byron Fuller, and Major Wes Schierman (USAF). It was a who’s who of individuals who upheld the military code at incredible personal cost during their years of captivity and torture.
A group of talented students from Zontek’s class met with these veterans and wrote the stories that were published by the North Central Educational Service District. The book was called “Returning with Honor: Stories of American Heroes.” Their stories are absolutely riveting.
Sharratt said the program that connected veterans with students to tell their stories was perhaps the greatest highlight of his distinguished career. Our communities stepped up for these decorated soldiers, as great communities do.