Brad Anderson and Steve Labenz collaborate on a project to commemorate armed service alumni


2018 is the 100th anniversary of WW1 and to help celebrate, history teachers Brad Anderson and Steve Labenz combined their efforts to make a prolonged desire an actuality.  This project would not only make this year memorable but also help to commemorate those who served in the armed forces.

In the front hallway, across from the administration offices, hang plaques that were given by a past senior class meant to dedicate each of the armed forces. While this gift impacts many, Anderson and Labenz wanted it to reach further than the school’s walls. So they came up with a game plan. They would compile a list of every FHC graduate who went on to serve as an act of remembrance.

“I think we should be doing something like this,” Labenz said. “I mean, a lot of people like [former custodian] Homer had gone here, and then he went to Vietnam. I mean, right out of high school. So I think we need to remember those people who [have served].”

Last year, the school arranged for the fife and drum band processional to celebrate Veterans Day at the school. Using this idea as inspiration, Labenz and Anderson decided to take the celebration and commemoration a little further. They are both currently working on compiling a list that documents each service member by name, graduation year, and branch they attended on the same walls that the emblems are currently located.

“Well, Mr. Labenz has been wanting to do this for some time,” Anderson said. “I think the tide rose last year after myself and five students attended an armed services Thanksgiving lunch in downtown Grand Rapids. They wanted to inspire different schools attending to do their own [ways of commemoration].”

Labenz and Anderson have been working on these lists for over a month, starting at the beginning of the school year. As of now, they collectively have an estimated twelve pages of names. Because it would be too difficult to go back and add names on after they are already mounted on plaques, the plan is to add the names non-sequentially in order to leave no one out.

“Next fall, we’ll have the wall up and running,” Anderson said. “You know, it’d be ambitious to think by the end of the year that we could have the plaques done, but [we’ll] definitely have them when students return next year to look at the wall.”

Labenz and Anderson have been utilizing social media platforms such as Facebook to reach out to those who have served in the armed forces. Both word of mouth and these platforms have gained them a list of approximately 200 students. But because there are so many more people who have served, Labenz will be mentioning their lists at this year’s Veteran’s Day.

Unfortunately for Labenz and Anderson, the word of their works is not commonly known. Word of mouth is hard to travel when the news itself is uncommon. This makes the compiling of names increasingly difficult because it creates more work by hand for Labenz and Anderson. In fact, senior Noah Stout, someone who is hoping to go into the Air Force Academy, did not himself know that a project like this was in the works. But now that he is aware of the idea, he could not be more supportive.

“Kids who are making the decision to go into the military, any branch that it be, [are] making the ultimate sacrifice,” Noah said. “It’s a sacrifice of their life, and that’s to serve our country. Those people should be remembered by the students and staff at Forest Hills Central. I think that’s really special that they’re always going to have their names there.”

Noah believes in the importance of remembrance, which is also a common belief held by Labenz. Because so many go into battle and do not always return home, it is all the more important to assure that their memories will not be washed away with the rain.

“Unfortunately, some of the names we have are people who died in action,” Labenz said. “I think that’s a good lesson for kids to know that a lot of people aren’t getting the opportunities that they’ve had. They fought and died in wars so that we can go to school and have the kind of lives that we want to live.”

While many might find it difficult to comprehend why some want to risk their lives for their country, others like Noah can’t help but see it as an obligation. For Noah, a passion that began when he was a freshman and befriended now graduated Ben Whitlow, who wound up going to West Point Military Academy, blossomed into an actuality with his own desire to serve.

“[Ben] had a big influence on me making that decision,” Noah said. “It’s always something that I was kind of interested in. But having those role models in my life [helped] make those decisions easier for me to as well.”

Noah is proud to be able to do his part in serving, and knowing that he will be remembered even after he graduates is something that further inspires him to continue on his track.

“That’s a really cool feeling,” Noah said. “There’s an old quote like, ‘Everyone dies twice; one time when your heart stops beating and another time when someone says your name for the last time.’ If you have your name set in stone or metal or whatever it is on those plaques, it’s kind of like you’re never going to be forgotten, and that’s pretty cool feeling.”