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Town, School Honor Fallen Alum

Ottawa Hills, Ohio, is a small, close-knit community of shaded streets, well-groomed lawns, and a variety of provincial and Tudor-style upscale homes. Contiguous to Toledo, but with its own ZIP code, it has a population just big enough to support its own “school system,” Ottawa Hills Elementary, Middle and High schools. As in Hawaii, the alumni of OHHS are likely to first tell you they graduated from Ottawa Hills rather than Ohio State or even Harvard. The loyalty and sense of connection are that strong.

The 1960 graduating class of OHHS included a young man named Robert Taft Hanson Jr.

He was admired by his friends and teachers for his football and track prowess, and his quiet “centered-ness” in all he did. Within six years of graduation he had attained an engineering degree and a commission as a U.S. naval officer.

I first met Bob as his instructor in the reconnaissance training squadron for the Navy’s new reconnaissance aircraft, the RA-5C, Vigilante, a Mach II airplane so beautifully sleek it looked like it was going supersonic while sitting still. Bob was training to be a bombardier-navigator and reconnaissance systems operator in the Vigi. He completed his training at the same time I completed my instructor tour, so we were paired up to deploy to a Vigi squadron on the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk. My new “backseater” and I flew a replacement aircraft from Florida to California to Hawaii to Wake Island to Guam to Japan, and then aboard the USS Kitty Hawk in the Tonkin Gulf off of North Vietnam. In the process, we became good friends.

“…every high school in America should have a Liberty Memorial – a reminder to our youths to appreciate the sacrifices made by so many for their security and freedom, blessings far too precious to take for granted, or to waste.”

On our 22nd mission over North Vietnam, our aircraft was downed by Communist anti-aircraft fire. We ejected from the plane at high speed (680 kts) and totally out of control. While floating in the Tonkin Gulf, there ensued a fierce battle for our capture between friendly planes from the carrier and the Communist militia in several small boats. Bob was killed and I was captured.

A couple of years ago, I met by chance a businessman from Ottawa Hills, and a classmate of Bob’s. He was chairman of a committee to finance and construct a Liberty Memorial on the main entrance walkway to OHHS – a memorial to all the graduates who have served in America’s armed forces in the cause of liberty. He invited me to speak at the memorial’s dedication, which I just did Sept. 6.

The memorial is a large brick, cement and polished marble, pentagon-shaped base for a very tall flagpole. On the front of the base is inscribed the dedication: “To all OHHS graduates who served their country to assure the survival and success of Liberty.” The two forward sides bear the inscribed names of more than 150 graduates who have served. Seven who made the ultimate sacrifice (killed in action) are marked with a star. Around the base, delineated with a brick-in-concrete circle, is the “Ring of Respect” with a circle of cement benches on the outer perimeter. All are illuminated 24/7. The Liberty Memorial also includes an annual speaker series focused on civics, history and patriotism for school assemblies, of which I was the first.

The ceremony was held in the high school gym and attended by all students and scores of Ottawa Hills residents, most of whom were OHHS alums and contributors to the memorial. I spoke of Bob Hanson’s time as a Green Bear (OHHS mascot), his athletic prowess and his popularity. I spoke of his achievements, of the Navy Lt. Hanson I had known, his professionalism and dedication to his country, and of the day he lost his life. I encouraged the students to view their new Liberty Memorial as a daily reminder of the blessings and privileges of liberty they enjoy, of the sacrifices made by others for their education in security and peace. And bottom line: “Freedom isn’t Free.”

On the flight home, I realized that every high school in America should have a Liberty Memorial – a reminder to our youths to appreciate the sacrifices made by so many for their security and freedom, blessings far too precious to take for granted, or to waste.