The Memorial Day dedication drew hundreds to the newly named Jennifer J. Harris Square yesterday morning, where droplets of rain fell sporadically and speakers paid tribute to a 28-year-old woman whose short life disguised unimaginable accomplishments.
Peter Sack, former principal of Swampscott High School, called Harris humble, empathetic, selfless and bright - "the best Swampscott had to offer." She was an honors graduate who ranked fifth in the Class of 1996 and was among a small cadre of accomplished women to become Marine Corps pilots.
"Why did I select this career path? The answer was really quite simple and can be summed up in two words: Jennifer Harris," Sack said from a podium on Stetson Avenue, to a crowd that included Harris' family, her classmates, Boy Scouts, neighbors, veterans, congressmen, fire and police officers, and active-duty military personnel. She was the only child of Rosalie and Raymond Harris of Elwin Street.
"She was goodness personified," Sack said. "She was destined to do great things, and she did."
Former Danvers Congressman Peter Torkildsen recalled the internship Harris did at his office while she was a student at Swampscott High. Most interns were in college, he said, but Harris applied for the post in high school - an example of her determination.
"She always wanted to know how to do better," Torkildsen said as his voice trembled. "We dedicate this square to keeping her memory alive ... her example to others."
Toward the end of the ceremony, a lone bagpiper played the stirring "Marine Corps Hymn" while Harris' aunt and uncle, Tony and Linda Macone of Nahant, pulled off a covering to reveal the new signpost that read "Capt. Jennifer J. Harris Square."
Harris' father hung a wreath of flowers on the post as tears streamed from his eyes.
Harris' mother and grandmother, Gina Macone - both in wheelchairs - cried from their spot by the podium. Macone reached over and held her daughter's hand, their eyes fixed on Raymond Harris as he placed the wreath.
"America the Beautiful" played from a speaker as the packed crowd stood frozen, gazing up at the new sign and wiping away tears.
"We wish the Harris family a special portion of God's peace on this Memorial Day," said the Rev. Dean Pedersen, a retired Navy chaplain and senior pastor at the First Church in Swampscott, the parish that Raymond Harris attends.
The new sign sits in a fresh circular bed of soil, flanked by red, white and yellow flowers, an American flag and a United States Marine Corps flag.
It is a half-mile down Essex Street from Jared Raymond Square, named in memory of Jared Raymond of Swampscott, a 20-year-old Army specialist killed in September 2006 in Iraq.
Pedersen noted that the two squares now bookend the new Swampscott High School building, set to open in the fall.
After yesterday's ceremony, Harris' close-knit family thanked the community for all the support.
"Back in February, (Jared Raymond's mother) sat with us day after day because she knew what we were going through," said Harris' aunt Marie Ahern, the sister of Rosalie Harris. "In part, that's how we make it through."
"The town of Swampscott has carried our family through this tragedy," said Tony Macone, Rosalie Harris' brother.
Marine First Lt. Neil Clinton attended yesterday's dedication. He and Harris were in the same class at Swampscott High and reunited last year during military training in Yuma, Ariz.
"My Marines used to say, 'We want to fly with the female pilot because she is the best,'" said Clinton, referring to Harris. "She was an exceptional pilot, in a class considered to be the masters of their trade.
"Everything people say about her is true," Clinton said. "She makes the Marine Officer Corps look 10 times better than it even is because she was such an exceptional person."
Harris, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, was killed on Feb. 7 while piloting a CH-46E Sea Knight helicopter northwest of Baghdad to transport injured soldiers. Four Marines and two U.S. Navy sailors were killed with her. It was her third deployment to Iraq, and she was due home the following week.