Published Saturday, November 10, 2012
By W. WINSTON SKINNER
Don Harvel told the story of an unassuming janitor – who it turns out was an unacknowledged Medal of Honor soldier – as the central focus of his Veterans Day talk.
Harvel, a retired brigadier general and Coweta resident, was the speaker for the Veterans Day program at Smokey Road Middle School on Friday. His remarks flowed from the life story of William J. Crawford, who received the medal for actions in World War II and later was a janitor at the U.S. Air Force Academy.
The program at Smokey Road included recognition of each attending veteran, music by the chorus and wind ensemble and presentation of the colors by the Air Force JROTC Color Guard from Newnan High School.
Wanda Pettaway and Ryan Sullivan, assistant principals, shared the names of veterans on the faculty, family members of staff serving on active duty and veterans attending the program. Ciara Morse, a Smokey Road student, played “Taps” at the end of the program, which was followed by a moment of silence.
Members of the Coweta-Fayette Rotary Club presented a commemorative bookmark to each veteran at the program.
(To view photos from this event, visit http://photos.times-herald.com/mycapture and click on Events for the Photo Gallery.)
Harvel, who grew up in Albuquerque and is a West Point graduate, said the face of the veteran is changing. While many people once thought of veterans as “elderly and retired,” the U.S. military involvement since Sept. 11, 2001 changed that.
“Our veterans are now younger,” he said. Many are still serving in the military “or as members of the National Guard.” He said, “The new veteran is the person next door.”
He then turned to Crawford’s story. He said Crawford was “someone at the Air Force Academy you could easily overlook.” Crawford was a small man, unassuming with a slight limp.
Crawford’s smile, Harvel said, “was a little bit crooked.”
The cadets, busy with classes, rarely gave Crawford much thought. Crawford, meanwhile, kept the unit where he worked spotless.
One fall Saturday afternoon, a cadet was reading for a class when he ran across a passage about William J. Crawford, who proved his bravery in “a very violent battle that took place in Italy” in 1943, Harvel related. In the midst of “very intense fighting,” Crawford single-handedly killed three groups of attacking Germans to allow his unit to survive and move forward.
On the Monday after the cadet learned Crawford’s story, the janitor was surprised to arrive a work to be greeted by “a group of cadets... waiting at the door,” Harvel said.
The janitor was shown the passage in the book, which had an accompanying photograph, and asked if the picture was of him. Crawford “looked at the book, stared at the picture for a minute and said simply, ‘Yep,’” Harvel said.
Asked why he had never told of his military past, Crawford said, “That was one day in my life, and that was a long time ago.”
After that day, people at the Air Force Academy wanted to shake Crawford’s hand. The cadets talked with him often and invited him to special events.
The young men even began taking more care of their own space, keeping it cleaner.
Harvel said Crawford’s story is a reminder to be cautious about labeling people and to remember that everyone deserves respect, that courtesy is important, and that anyone can become a hero.
“Leaders should always be humble. Mr. Crawford was too busy doing his job as a janitor to celebrate his past heroics,” Harvel said.
In addition to being a janitor, William Crawford was “also a teacher, a friend, a role model and a great American hero.” He taught the cadets around him “more than they would ever learn from any class or book,” Harvel said.
Pettaway expressed thanks to all the veterans for “everything you have done to protect and serve our country.” Because of veterans, she said, America remains “a land of freedom and opportunity, a place of hope.”
She said veterans have shown they are “not afraid to fight for what is right and what is just” since the beginnings of the nation’s history.
“Our nation has done its part... to ensure the blessing of liberty for future generations.”
The school’s Parent-Teacher Organization held a reception for veterans after the program.