High school observes early Memorial Day

SYCAMORE – Connor Wright, 8, and his younger sister, Peyton, 6, had to be there.

“They wanted to come, so I had to bring them,” their grandfather Ralph Wallis said with a laugh.

Wallis is a Marine veteran who served in Vietnam from 1965 to 1966. Fellow Marine veteran Jerry Pelan, who organizes the annual Memorial Day observance at Sycamore High School the Friday before Memorial Day, is Connor’s favorite crossing guard, Wallis said. Pelan encouraged the children to attend, he said.

Pelan, who began organizing the event 13 years ago, said the before-school ceremony has a dual purpose. Besides kicking off Memorial Day weekend, it allows high school students a chance to understand the sacrifices “our veterans have made.”

SHS junior Jace Pesina began the ceremony by lowering the school’s flag to half staff with sophomore Kailey Mulligan. He said he intended to enter the Army National Guard Memorial Day weekend.

“My family has a really long tradition of being in the military,” he said.

Pesina said he will spend the summer in basic training, then return home for his senior year in high school. Once he graduates, his contract calls for eight years of service.

“[Veterans’] sacrifices allowed me to enlist today,” he said. “It means a lot to me, future soldiers and the public as well.”

After a brief ceremony outside, Clayton Riley, a 17-year veteran of the Illinois National Guard, led a procession of local veterans through the halls of the high school. As patriotic music played over the loudspeaker, a number of students gathered outside of their classrooms to pay respect. Some applauded as the U.S. flag passed by, while others placed their hands over their hearts.

High school principal Tim Carlson said the students weren’t required to participate.

“It’s an honor just to get the chance to show the students the dedication and sacrifice all the veterans have shown to our country,” Riley said.

The procession ended at the school cafeteria, where a number of displays were set up, including medals, books, pictures, letters and more donated by local veterans and the Sycamore History Museum. A “Freedom Is Not Free” wall displayed pictures of deceased Sycamore veterans who were also SHS alumni. Refreshments were also available.

“This is outstanding,” said Bill Draper, past 12th District Commander of the American Legion. “This is one of the best I have ever participated in.”