Last year, on a beautiful sun-kissed Memorial Day, I had the honor to speak at a ceremony in Mohawk presided over by the Crowley-Barnum Post. My speech included references to two men who were killed in action in Vietnam; Marine Sgt. Joseph “Stash” Zawtocki from Little Falls and Lance Cpl. David Mills from Mohawk. Stash was a personal friend who died in a VC prison camp on Christmas Eve, 1969. One hundred yards from where I stood, David’s stone told visitors that he died on December 15, 1966. He was 20.
While talking about one of Mohawk’s best and brightest, I noticed members of the high school band nearby and decided to ask them to raise their hands if they knew who Lance Cpl. Mills was. None did. Following the program, I spent some time in conversation with Past Commander Dan Ferguson. We were both taken aback by the fact that the students didn’t know of the heroic Marine from their school who died in a jungle in Southeast Asia.
Nearly a half-century is a long time, and in more places than just Mohawk, memories fade like photos behind dusty glass frames. It’s not one person’s fault that on a national day of remembrance, those who should be honored each year are instead forgotten. It’s all of ours. While leaving the cemetery hand-in-hand with my granddaughter, I decided to offer a challenge to the community which, if met, would ensure that if that question were ever asked again, every hand would be raised.
It is with the greatest pride that I can report, if you’re not already aware, the successful completion of the Lance Cpl. David Mills Memorial Food Drive. Beginning late last year, a committee was formed chaired by Mohawk’s legendary wrestling coach, Tom Marriott, and comprised of students led by Jarvis’ outstanding senior class, community volunteers including a few of David’s classmates, and some Legionnaires. On May 21st, Armed Services Day, the students went door-to-door in a community that, thanks to a great publicity campaign, knew they were coming. The result was a “ton” of food for the Herkimer-Mohawk Pantry, and thanks to the remarkable efforts of Lois Arndt, cash donations totaling over $1,000.
Not only did the young people in Mohawk meet the challenge, but those in Little Falls and Frankfort did as well. The former’s National Honor Society, advised by Carolyn Wallace and led by Seniors Hannah Corbett and Aaron Yallowitz, and the latter’s Key and Builders Clubs, advised by Carm Cooper and Michelle Cleveland, successfully canvassed their communities collecting food in the memories of and birthday presents for Sgt. Zawtocki and SSgt. John LaPolla (KIA on 4/15/69). Stash would have been 65 on May 16, while John’s birthday was May 14.
One of Mohawk’s donors, Patricia Hess, offered this quote as part of her thank-you note to those involved: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the ONLY thing that ever has.” For me, these words epitomize the efforts of a group of people, primarily young, who not only improved the quality of life of their communities but, in the process, added another dimension to the meaning of Memorial Day. For that, we should all be eternally grateful.
Ray Lenarcic-Herkimer County Hunger Coalition