Memorial at Waggener High School Honors Military Veterans
Writer / Andrew Toy
If you were anywhere near Waggener High School on September 9, 2017, you would have smelled 200 barbecue sandwiches sizzling and steaming on Mission BBQ’s portable grill. You would have heard music and laughter, and speakers giving talks about a bygone era. In other words, it was an all-American pregame party on a cool fall evening. The Wildcats were gearing up to do battle against Eastern’s Eagles. And “battle” is only too apt a word for this night’s football game.
This particular weekend memorialized the 16-year anniversary of 9/11. It was also the long-awaited dedication night for Waggener’s newly erected Vietnam memorial that stands proudly between the south field goal and the track. Despite the party atmosphere and the pregame battle cries, this night proved to be one of the most emotional for the entire community, for amongst the crowd were 45 Waggener graduates who were veterans of various wars throughout the decades.
Staff members of Waggener dug out a set of retired football jerseys. Each of those 45 veterans had their names stitched to the backs of those jerseys, so the boys proudly played the first half of the game bearing the name of a veteran. One senior took this sentiment so seriously that even though he broke his collarbone in the first quarter, he refused to be taken off the field to get immediate help. He hung in there for the remaining minutes until halftime when he, along with his teammates, walked onto the field with their respective veteran, pulled off their jersey, and handed it to the serviceman in exchange for a service coin from whatever service branch the veteran had served in.
One of the speakers that night was John Wells, a 1966 Waggener High graduate and Vietnam vet. Not one for public speaking, he did share a few words. Not only is this soft-spoken man an inductee in the Waggener Alumni Association Hall of Fame, but he is also the main caretaker of the monument. Amongst other duties, he maintains the electrical components and lighting, polishes the three 800-pound marble pillars, makes sure the fence isn’t bent or dented from wayward footballs, and scrubs footmarks off the benches left by stretching athletes.
“Probably the best conversations I have about the memorial take place during the summer, when I’m out just mowing the grass on the football field,” says Jamie Dumstorf, athletic director.
He isn’t on campus much these days due to COVID, but he’ll stop by a couple times per week to mow the grass, and he’ll regularly see different wreaths and flowers, many from Wells’ old classmates and friends. The memorial has proven to be a real place of solitude for many people – men and women – from that generation. He’ll see somebody pull up in the parking lot, total strangers to Waggener, sometimes in uniform, sometimes not. Through their various networks and communications through fellow veterans, they heard about the Waggener High memorial.
“I’ve had folks from California,” Dumstorf says. “I’ll walk off my lawnmower and strike up a conversation. We know that it’s noted nationally. I couldn’t have predicted that.”
A man named Billy Pfeister, whose brother died, brings popcorn frequently and lays it down in front of the memorial, because his brother Bobby was a popcorn fanatic. When Dumstorf sees a ziplock bag of popcorn out there, he knows that Billy’s been out there thinking about his brother, who he’s built his entire life around. So much so, that Billy has refused being inducted into the hall of fame until his brother can also be included with him. A true band of brothers.
The idea for the memorial came around 2015, and Dumstorf was an integral part of that process. In 2012 a primary project for St. Matthews was renovating the track at Waggener High. Dumstorf, along with Wells and another friend, Chris Johnson, made a deal that as soon as they got the track done, they’d direct the construction of the monument. Dumstorf wasted no time in raising money, and it took five years to finalize the track, which was dedicated in the summer of 2017, just a couple of months prior to the memorial dedication.
One would think there would be mountains of hurdles and roadblocks standing in the way of getting such an ambitious project underway. It took approximately $300,000 to finish off the track alone. Once that was complete, the next step was to tear up the nice new rubber surface with a Bobcat.
“Whenever you do some sort of facilities modification in [Jefferson County Public Schools], you’ve got to submit paperwork to the board for approval, so we had to have the district engineer come out and do a quick survey of the land and give us the green light, and then file that paperwork and get that approved by the board,” Dumstorf says.
No one really threw up any red flags because it seemed everyone was behind the project. There were legal factors, because according to Dumstorf, anything erected on the property becomes property of not the school, nor of an alumni association, but of Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS). The memorial is actually owned by JCPS, which is where the legalities came in with the Kentucky Veterans Affairs board. That didn’t turn out so bad, because they ended up giving some money to do all the extra work on the outside of the track to add to the walk-up. The lawyers were there on both sides simply to write an agreement that Veterans Affairs was going to give a significant amount to Waggener Alumni Association and JCPS to get the project finished, even though it wasn’t their property. In the end it was all about just putting up a memorial. The logistics, legwork and money behind that memorial were hefty, but not compared to the efforts and tears the memorial represents.
There were, of course, other donators, especially within the Alumni Association, but most of them preferred to remain anonymous.
But why here? Why at a high school? Why at Waggener High School? If you go to the second floor of the school’s main building, you’ll find the library. Tucked away in an obscure corner is a little Vietnam war memorial dedicated to seven graduates who fought and died in Vietnam. Aside from not being in a very noticeable location, there’s something else wrong with it – it’s missing one veteran named Danny Edward Driskill, and he’s included in the monument outside, stretching out like an embrace from the track.
It was these eight graduates from Waggener, who served and died, who made Dumstorf and Wells realize that their sacrifice demanded remembrance.
Wells tells the story about one of the boys whose name is engraved for eternity on that memorial. He talks about Robert Stagier Pfeister, or Bobby – the popcorn fanatic. Bobby’s twin brother Billy is good friends with Wells. They, along with Bobby, graduated from Waggener in 1966. According to Wells, you couldn’t tell Bobby and Billy apart. Wells recalls Bobby’s casualty date without hesitation – 53 years ago on January 10. His face goes to a different place as he tells of the horrors his friend encountered.
“They were both in the army, they were both gunners on Hueys and they got overrun one night, and he took one in the head,” Wells says. “Billy had to actually play dead. He had been shot in the leg, he got shrapnel from a grenade. He had to play dead. One Vietcong was after him at the time and he literally, after he was shot, lay down in the bottom of the foxhole I think, and acted like he was dead. He said the Vietcong came up and poked him with his gun and didn’t…I mean, this is kind of…this is a…”
That’s all that needed to be said. Wells’ own experiences in Da Nang, in South Vietnam, as a combat corpsman were flooding through him.
“I can’t talk about it,” he says. “It just really upsets me.”
Cash, Wells’ beautiful black Labrador service dog, laying at his feet, suddenly becomes excitable, and puts his front paws on his lap, possibly to comfort him.
“At ease, Cash,” Wells says, wiping his tears. “At ease.”
But what about the students? Does the memorial pique interest among them? Does it inspire questions or deeper reflection? Dumstorf doesn’t think it ignites gratitude as much as he’d have liked, but it has prompted a lot of conversations in the classrooms, which he regrets not witnessing as much since he’s usually out on the field. However, he has heard from other teachers that the kids will ask about the significance of the memorial out by the football field.
“Then for some of my student-athletes who are out there training, that’s where a lot of coaching conversations have come up,” Dumstorf says. “I’ve had John come into the locker room and speak to the football team.”
One of the speakers on that dedication night in September of 2017 was Kit Georgehead. He was one of the oldest graduates, in the class of 1960. Georgehead wasn’t all-state, but he was all-region. He went on to serve in Vietnam. He was in the Battle of Khe Sanh, which didn’t leave many American or allied survivors, but Georgehead was one. He lived on to speak to the students and attendees on that special night on the Waggener football field – stomachs full of good American food, eyes swelling with tears, hearts with pride.
Look for Georgehead’s brick on the walkway leading up to the memorial if you ever decide to stop by. Give a little prayer of thanks for the men and women who served, and who are still serving today. Don’t be alarmed if someone with a friendly face hops down off his lawnmower to strike up a conversation with you and asks how you heard about the marble pillars. Rest your feet and chat with him for a while. War may tear families and lovers apart, but if we let it, it can bring strangers together and forge friendships that last a lifetime.
Then, when you get home, call your parents, hug your spouse, tickle your kids, and throw some popcorn in the microwave in honor of good ol’ Bobby.