AYER – World War I, called “the great war” and “the war to end all wars,” claimed millions of people’s lives during the four years it raged across Europe, from 1914 to 1918.
The United States joined the conflict in 1917.
The signing of an armistice on Nov. 11, 1918 ended hostilities. Other peace treaties followed, changing the continental map. The world would never be the same.
A century later, the historic date is marked with events in the U.S. and overseas to commemorate Armistice Day – now re-named Veterans Day.
Events like the Veterans Day program at Ayer Shirley Regional High School.
In an annual tradition dating back 20 years, the administration, staff and students rolled out the red carpet for veterans last Friday.
Following a complimentary breakfast at an Ayer eatery, the next stop was the high school on Washington Street., where the veterans talked about their service in a quartet of assigned classrooms.
The program, coordinated by Ayer Shirley Regional High School teacher Steve Tulli, wrapped with an assembly in the auditorium. It was a stirring, patriotic tribute start to finish, featuring a roll call of veterans – 35 in all – and performances by students and guests, including Minda Tiernan, Ayer Shirley Regional High School Class of 2020, who sang the National Anthem, a medley of service anthems played by the Ayer Shirley Regional High School Marching Band, directed by Tim Ketterer and a selection of songs by the International Veterans Chorus, directed by Fran Cooley. Based in Leominster, the chorus welcomes members from across the nation and all over the world, she said.
Page Hilltop Elementary School fifth-grader Tessa Lanteigne read an essay she wrote about her great grandfather, Frank Harmon, a Navy veteran. Sketching his service during the Korean War, she noted the ship he was on and his outfits, on board and off. Aboard ship, he wore a work shirt, she said, donning his uniform when ashore. Now he helps out at the Veterans Administration Hospital, among other things, she said.
Local veterans who spoke included Norman Albert, a WWII Marine veteran from Shirley, and Dave Sawyer, of Ayer, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who served 21 years on active duty. The two men represented their respective American Legion posts.
Twelve empty seats in the front row were reserved for veterans who had passed away in recent years.
One of them was Phil O’Keefe, a former AHS teacher who died in February at age 75. “He’d be proud of the way we continue to honor our veterans,” Steve Tulli said.
2008 AHS graduate Matthew Anderson remembered his late father, a Vietnam veteran who had “plenty of amazing stories” to tell. “Everybody knew him,” he said. “Man, I miss him!”
Others who served the nation but did not survive the wars they fought in were recognized.
“We were the fortunate ones who were able to come home,” Albert said.
Sawyer thanked the school district and the town of Ayer for doing so much to honor veterans. “This town absolutely does it right,” he said.
The keynote speaker was Matthew John Noll, SSG U.S. Air Force. A 2002 graduate of the high school, Noll teaches fourth grade at the Lura A. White School in Shirley.
His speech was about the value of service.
“I was a military brat,” Noll said, noting a family tradition: Both grandfathers served in the military and his father spent 20 years in the Army.
“My brother is in the Infantry…so, of course, I joined the Air Force,” he said. Noll recalled a “short evening program” at the high school in 1999, when he was a sophomore. Diplomas were handed out to veterans who left school early to join the service in wartime, he said.
He also recalled the Sept. 11 terror attack on the U.S., when he was 16. His English teacher said “Everything is different now,” Noll said. “I had to do something.” Years later, he did.
Directing his remarks to students plotting their future course, he said that service is a worthy goal to pursue “as you think of what to do with your lives,” whether it’s in the military or in some other form, such as a helping profession, volunteer work, civic involvement or community service.
“I’m a teacher now,” he said, but he also thought of being a police officer or a school psychologist. Starting as a paraprofessional, during his tenure on the district staff he’s been a Lego Robotics coach as well. The key is to find ways to contribute, do something that helps others, he said.
That sense of duty is part of the legacy Veterans Day calls to mind, Noll said. “Every veteran here today has made so many sacrifices,” he said, from leaving loved ones to missing out on family occasions. The “invisible bruises” they carry around are hard to describe, he said, “like trying to explain color to someone who doesn’t know what color is.”
But events such as this one can start that conversation and are important. “They do mean a lot,” he said.
No matter what the future holds, service of some kind can be be part of it, Noll concluded. “Please, do something… whatever that may be,” he said.