ANGOLA — When Ron Hays went on Honor Flight 31 from northeast Indiana, he didn’t realize the support he would receive.
Not just from the folks from Indiana Honor Flights Northeast Indiana and the myriad people associated with these special trips for veterans.
No, it was a bunch of second-graders from Ryan Park Elementary School, taught by Julie Clary.
“I was just so impressed with all of it,” said Hays, of Angola, the trip and the attention he received from the second graders.
On Honor Flights, veterans spend the day in Washington, D.C., reflecting upon the memorials built in their honor. They share the flight with their peers and guardians creating and reliving memories. They enjoy visiting seven memorials, a bus tour around Washington, D.C., and receive deserving accolades and gratitude from men, women and children throughout the day. They receive a hero’s welcome upon returning home in Fort Wayne, typically with a crowd that can reach 1,000-people strong.
When veterans go on an Honor Flight, they receive “mail call,” which is a packet of information vital to their trips. In Hays’ case, he received an added bonus, a large envelope filled with hand-drawn letters created by the students in Clary’s class.
“They were so simplistic, so honest,” Hays said. “My package was twice as big as anyone else.”
Clary’s class learned about Hays’ trip through Bruce Andres, a volunteer with the Real Men Read program through the Steuben County Literacy Coalition. Andres had Hays doing some reading and the two are fellow members at the First Congregational United Church of Christ, so he was aware of the upcoming trip. Andres told Clary about Hays and she put the students on to the task.
“For their age, they have a sincere appreciation for him, they truly do,” Clary said.
“When fellow reading volunteer, Bruce Andres, invited the kids to write letters to Ron for Mail Call on the Honor Flight to Washington D.C., the kids made an instant connection. They wanted to know more about Washington D.C., Korean War, Japan, Honor Flights, Mail Call, and Mr. Ron as a young man,” Clary said.
About a week after his return from the Honor Flight, Hays sat down at his kitchen table with his guardian from the trip, Doris Mattingly. They carefully read every letter. Hays was so moved he decided he needed to share a treat with the children.
“I was so impressed with Mrs. Clary’s class that I had to do something for them,” Hays said, pausing with emotion. “And it was something for me.”
He made arrangements to get some patriotic cupcakes made from the Meijer bakery and ordered double frosting. The cupcakes were messy and some of the kids turned the frosting into patriotic makeup.
It was all part of a program Hays presented to the class about his trip and about his service in the Korean War. Hays was in intelligence, working with the National Security Agency.
Hays said the students were very attentive and truly seemed interested in what he had to say about his trip and his service.
The children had more letters when he returned.
“The (letters) that I really liked were the ones with the mistakes, the misspellings, the words crossed out, the corrections,” Hays said, noting that he also enjoyed the letters that were done with perfection.
“It’s not about me and my trip, it’s about their caring, their efforts,” Hays said.
Hays loves talking about his trip, how great it was, seeing all of the monuments and being treated like royalty, even in ways that are only reserved for one other person, the president of the United States.
But anytime you get Hays to talking about his Honor Flight, he keeps returning to Julie Clary’s second-grade class from Ryan Park.
Clary, recounting Hays’ class presentation, said, “A tear came to his eye when he told us how much (the students’ efforts) meant to him.”
When Hays returned to Clary’s classroom Friday for another photo that would include the letters and Clary, he was met with loud greetings from his new friends. Some remembered his talk and others remembered the cupcakes. But they all remembered Mr. Ron, which is what they call this retired teacher who decided to make Angola his home in retirement.
In a classroom that has strong overtones of study of the natural world outside, there’s always a special place for veterans, whose photos take up a prominent place near the class’ American flag, which now includes Mr. Ron.
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