Remembering the fallen alumni of Roxborough High
Four long years of war took the lives of 97 Roxborough graduates. Every time I walk up the steps of the marble hall in Roxborough High School, I lightly touch a metal plaque that honors those who gave their lives for their country during World War II.
The grand hall, the centerpiece of the Art Deco-style public schools built in Philadelphia in the 1920s, rises two stories, its walls covered by paintings in gilt frames. Two magnificent curved staircases lead to the second floor, where the plaque honoring the dead faces a window that sometimes blazes with sunlight. The hall is quiet in comparison to the rest of the building, giving it the feeling of a shrine. A fitting place to honor the dead.
The names reflect numerous ethnic groups: Stanley F. Hajduk and Frank P. Hare, John Brown and Jerome Abrams, Joseph Kleinschmidt and Chester Ostasiewski, Jesse Straughter and Daniel Devlin, Silvio Formosa and John Cendretto. And then there’s John Nolasco and Peter Nolasco. Were the two brothers? Cousins? The tragic loss of young life gives me pause.
I often think that the young men on the plaque were much like the students today, who attend a much older and much different school. But there would have been a common denominator. High school students of all eras are full of life and bursting with energy, hoping for a bright future.
Different today is the fact that war is not a living reality to our students (even as fighting in the Middle East drags on). Our students are not facing the draft. For most, the idea that they or any member of their families would go to war and be killed does not enter their consciousness. Most current students probably never even think of war. Because of that, there is no reason for them to pause in remembrance before the names of the dead in the marble hall.
War, however, would have been a daily reality for the people whose names are on the plaque and for their families. On the home front, families faced rationed food and gasoline. On the war front, families faced the distinct possibility that their beloved children could be killed.
Like generations of people who have staffed Roxborough High since 1922, I’ve seen hundreds of fresh-faced young people grow from being disorganized, immature 9th graders into responsible young adults. In the 16 years I have worked at Roxborough High, I’ve seen a small number of our students enlist in the service. One graduated from the Naval Academy. Another, Rodney Jones, a personable young man whom I liked and admired, was killed in Iraq a decade ago. (The former art teacher painted his picture on a wall outside the school cafeteria.) I am the oldest staff member in the school. When I retire at the end of this year, there will be no one left in the school who will remember Rodney.
The memories of the dead from wars long past wane as the generations who knew them age and pass away. Yet the ever-present specter of war, its destructive violence, and its horrific effect on the families of the dead, as well as on its survivors, should never fade from the memories of the living. The posthumous dedication of war memorials is but a small token to their supreme sacrifice.
Eileen M. DiFranco, R.N., is a certified school nurse who has proudly served the schoolchildren of Philadelphia for 23 years. She is a lifelong resident of Philadelphia.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.