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Veterans Day Assembly at Kingwood Oxford Honors Those Who Serve

Students sing the National Anthem. Submitted photo

The Veterans Day program at Kingswood Oxford School in West Hartford included a discussion of how World War I and World War II impacted students at the time.

Brenda Semmelrock. Submitted photo

Submitted by Jackie Pisani, Kingswood Oxford School

Kingswood Oxford student Riley Gravel ’21 of Cheshire, whose father serves in the military, led the Veterans Day assembly on Monday, Nov. 11. Gravel told the students to “be bold” when they encounter a member of the armed forces and thank them for their service.

Riley shared that his father is always moved when the public shows their gratitude, and he shares the experience with his family.

Following a beautiful rendition of the “National Anthem,” archivist Brenda Semmelrock informed the students how World War I and World War II impacted the students at Kingswood School and Oxford School by researching letters, reading “Kingswood 50 Years,” and the Head of School’s convocation speech by Nelson Farquhar in 1988. Positioned next to the podium was a framed photo of 18 members of Kingswood who died in service. (A total of 19 died in battle.)

The Great War would be over before any Kingswood boy could enlist as the oldest boy at Kingwood was only 16 years old. The boys did their part, buying savings stamps and liberty bonds. They were taught the manual of arms, drilling with dummy rifles at morning recess.

Oxford, too, contributed to the war effort. The local mothers would assemble weekly to fold surgical dressings; a patriotic charity event held at The Hartford Club by the school March 1918 raised $575; students volunteered for the Red Cross.

When the war was over, the students remembered the bells, whistles, and sirens that rang out in downtown Hartford on April 30, 1919.

World War II impacted the schools as Kingswood faculty and students were called to serve.

One teacher was a combat medic who was awarded the Bronze Star. Former Head of School and student Nelson Farquhar took a leave of absence preparing aircraft parts at Pratt and Whitney. To conserve energy, thermostats were set lower, wire mesh screens were placed in windows to prevent breaking glass in the event of a bomb, students practiced for air raids, and received first aid training.

Due to the rationing of gas, many students either rode their bikes to school, took a bus or left school because they were unable to travel to campus. Sixth-formers studied map reading and military drills were conducted before sports. Older boys were drafted when they turned 18, and they were awarded their diplomas in advance of graduation. 

“These are the guys you know. That you see every day. You may be next,” said Semmelrock in describing the mood of the students at the time. Names of the wounded, missing or killed in action were solemnly read aloud during assemblies. By March 1942, one-fifth of the Kingswood alumni were serving.

Like many teens, the students weren’t immune to self-absorption despite living in harrowing times. One Oxford alumna recollected, “When you’re 16, all you think about is not ‘What going to happen to the world? It’s what’s going to happen to my world.’” Oxford girls fretted that they would be unable to find white graduation dresses as the material was used for bandages.

To personalize the assembly, Semmelrock noted the accomplishments of Kingswood’s Harold Berry Jr. who served and perished in World War II. A three-sport athlete, in football, basketball, and baseball, editor of The Wyvern, public speaker, and actor in the plays, Berry accomplished much in his short life.

Semmelrock read a letter from a member of the Class of 1961 addressed to Headmaster Nelson Farquhar, written from the trenches of Vietnam in 1966. After fighting in a Viet Cong base camp where four of his men were killed and 13 were wounded he said, “When the numbness wears off, it all becomes real again. I want this war to be over so we can get out of here. I think of the men I’ve led who won’t be going home and how can I answer their questions? How can we as a nation answer to them?”

The assembly concluded with a blistering electric guitar solo of the “National Anthem” a la Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock by Jack Gold ’23 and Finn Wells ’23, both of West Hartford.

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Riley Gravel. Submitted photo

National Anthem on electric guitar. Submitted photo

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