Chris Kelly: High School Students’ Portraits Of Veterans Reveal Respect
Sonya Castillo never met John Baker. She took one look at the Scranton native and Navy veteran and reached for a pencil.
“His eyes spoke to me,” the 17-year-old West Scranton High School senior said Friday at a reception for students who drew portraits of veterans for a class project. For an afternoon, the Gino J. Merli Veterans Center was a gallery celebrating its residents as works of art.
“I could see his pain,” Castillo said of Baker. She chose him from a stack of photographs art teacher Anne McNally spread across a table.
“His picture just stuck out,” Castillo said. “I’m sorry I didn’t get to meet him.”
A Merli Center resident, Baker died last month. He is gone. Castillo’s portrait of him remains. If not for her drawing, I might never have known John Baker existed. Thank you, John Baker, for your service.
And thank you, Sonya Castillo, for seeing the pain in a veteran’s eyes. John Baker matters. Your drawing matters.
Anne McNally may have been the most thankful soul in the room Friday. She challenged her students to see the sacrifices of individuals who made a better world for those of us who came after. She was thrilled — but not surprised — by the results.
“Their work speaks for itself,” she said. It surely does, but don’t take my word for it.
“I’m amazed by the talent of these young people,” said Merlin “Dutch” Phillips, 98, a World War II Marine veteran who also served as Santa Claus at the Globe store.
Yes, he’s a Marine named Merlin and he served as Santa Claus. You can’t make this stuff up, which is why I occasionally leave the office in search of inspiration.
Merlin lives at the Merli Center with Ethel, his wife of 75 years. She recently celebrated her 100th birthday. She wasn’t present for Friday’s celebration. I’m sorry I didn’t get to meet her.
I did meet Merlin, and the talented young man who drew his portrait.
“For so long, he was just a picture,” said Sam Goncalves, a 17-year-old senior. “To get to know the actual hero I was drawing is awesome.”
It was awesome to witness Sam and Merlin meet. Born 81 years apart, they were brought together by a public school teacher who challenged her students and taught them a lesson in respect that will serve them the rest of their lives.
Two blocks away, hundreds of members of the teachers union massed around the school district administration building. The war over the future of public schooling in Scranton raged on while students bonded with veterans who saved the world.
By comparison, saving a school district should be easy.
CHRIS KELLY, The Times-
Tribune columnist, applauds the students who drew indelible parallels between past and present. Contact the writer: kellysworld@ timesshamrock.com, @cjkink on Twitter. Read his award-winning blog at timestribuneblogs.com/kelly.