Photo by David Colburn
Illinois Patriot Guard members prepare for the 9/11 memorial event in Civic Memorial High School’s gymnasium on Sept. 8. The event was originally slated to take place at the stadium but was moved indoors because of rain. Keynote speaker Col. Ellen K. “Katie” Haddock commended students for the amount of effort they put into the event to ensure “that 9/11 isn’t just a history lesson.”
BETHALTO — Civic Memorial High School students and faculty gathered in their gymnasium Sept. 8 to memorialize a tragedy that holds a special place in their PE teacher’s heart and the nation’s collective memory.
“The impact of what we saw on 9/11 was so tremendous the time that it happened, and it still has so much impact on us today,” Bethalto Mayor Alan Winslow said in his opening speech. “For those of you that are here, you know how our entire country came together; we joined as one voice and we made a vow that we are going to see through this and emerge stronger as a better country. One example of that is what we’re seeing tonight: a group of high school kids can put on an event of this magnitude and this importance and do such a wonderful job.”
Winslow’s speech paid tribute to local and national heroes.
“When we see these horrible scenes of disaster on TV and we see the crowds of people rushing away, we see the first responders rushing head-on directly at the threat, and these times, our first responders willingly and knowingly put their own lives in danger in order to save complete strangers,” he said. “That’s a special type of person to do that. These people also know that any time they put the uniform on, it’s also the possibility that it could be the last, but that’s what heroes do.”
In the same spirit of gratitude, students who organized the event gave special thanks to the fire department, police officers, EMS workers, doctors, residents and all members of the military branches. Students also were grateful to special guest Col. Ellen K. Haddock and husband, Master Sgt. Jerry Haddock; the staff and members of the Alton VFW, members of the Illinois Patriot Guard for the posting of the colors, Dan Whiteside on bagpipes and Don Halliday on drums, and the Civic Memorial staff and maintenance crew.
Following a rendition of the national anthem and prayer, students shared their thoughts and heartfelt responses to the tragedy. Sophomore Sierra Nolte did extensive research to contact survivor Joe Ditmar prior to the event. In quoting Ditmar, Nolte said, “Just the look in their eyes told you they knew: they knew they were going to fight a fire they could not stop, they were going to save lives they could not save, and they knew they were never coming back.”
She closed her speech with a strong warning: “The second we let our guard down is the second that the enemy will show us why we shouldn’t have.”
Lex Pohlman recited a poem she wrote in honor of first responders and firefighters and their heroic and dangerous work.
Physical education teacher Angela Parish delivered a powerful speech on her memory of the tragic day and why it struck so close to home. She began by mentioning that the ceremony started with a small idea she brought to her students three years ago as a challenge presented by another educator.
“We talked about 9/11 and exactly how you memorialize that,” Parish said. “I really worried on Sept. 11 about my friend Katie.”
In raw emotion, Parish confessed to the audience she considers Haddock as a sister.
“She’s not my blood sister, but she’s known me since the day I was born,” Parish said. “On Sept. 11, I was standing at the base of those stairs, with my left foot on the bottom step, my grade book in my hand. At that point in time, Col. Haddock was stationed in the Pentagon.”
Parish described her panic.
“I immediately grabbed my cellphone, and I called and I called and I called,” she said. “It was days before I knew if she was safe or not. Sept. 11 has a huge spot in my heart. On Sept. 11, Col. Haddock wasn’t actually at the Pentagon; by the grace of God, she was just a little ways down the road. I’m so thankful that she was, because she’s the best hero and the best role model anybody could ever have. She’s the reason this project began.”
Following Parish’s speech, a plaque was presented to Haddock. It states: “Colonel Ellen K. ‘Katie’ Haddock, USMC. 2016, Never Forget, September 11th, 2001. You don’t become a hero because of what you do, you become a hero because of who you are.”
Upon accepting the plaque, Haddock commented on the venue change because of the morning’s rain.
“When I got here earlier today, it was raining; about half the flags were outside and I just saw a bunch of long faces from a bunch of students who thought that all the work they put into this was somehow going to not count if they couldn’t get the flags up,” she said. “All I have to say is, if you need zip ties, you might have to go as far as St. Louis; I think they’ve bought them all out in the surrounding counties. Great jobs, ladies and gentlemen.
“Perhaps every generation has that moment of where we were,” Haddock said. “Maybe some of the parents remember where they were when Kennedy was shot; some of the grandparents remember where they were when Pearl Harbor was attacked. And if we don’t remember that personally, the only way that we can carry that with us and learn from it is to have it taught to us as history. I wasn’t alive in World War II, but I have a sense of what that feels like from where I was on 9/11.
“I feel like a little bit like a fraud to stand up here and talk about my 9/11 experience because I wasn’t in the Pentagon,” she said. “I was just across the river, so I got to see the building burn and smell it for weeks after. It just was profoundly frustrating to not know what was going to happen next. For my family and my friends, it doesn’t really matter that I wasn’t in the Pentagon: they felt the same fear and, as Miss Parish described it, you can’t hardly breathe until you know.”
In closing her speech, Haddock said the incoming freshmen class will be the first group of students born after the tragedy.
“This program was started with the thought that most students in high school now don’t have their own memories of 9/11,” she said. “Think about that; think about such a drastic day in our history, and all they have is history.”
Haddock commended the devoted students who put forth an extensive effort to make sure “that 9/11 isn’t just a history lesson.”