By Alan Burke
---- — PEABODY — Patriotism at the West Elementary School has been certified with a plaque from the Department of Defense in Washington. It’s a unique designation creating a lot of cheer for students and school employees.
The Seven Seals Award is generally bestowed on businesses in recognition of their willingness to ease the transition for employees who are called away to serve in the National Guard or Reserves. The award goes to the West School — in a ceremony set for Tuesday at 10 a.m. at the school — to mark efforts made to instill students with respect for the nation and the men and women who sacrifice themselves in its defense.
“The parents are really excited about it,” says principal Tom Cornacchio.
The school came to the attention of the Defense Department thanks to a letter written by National Guard Staff Sgt. Dave Nicholson. A Peabody resident and former West student, Nicholson, 52, sends two of his three kids to the school.
“We’ve all gone to the West School,” he says proudly.
He will join in Tuesday’s ceremony which is taking place shortly before he is to be deployed to Afghanistan for the better part of a year.
Nicholson’s letter, says Cornacchio, was based “just on what he observed here ... that it’s apparent we’re trying to teach the importance to kids of military service. ... You can’t have democracy without people who go out and fight for it.”
That’s a sentiment Cornacchio drew from the experience of his late father, Salem’s Joseph “Pep” Cornacchio, a veteran of World War II. The principal sees fostering patriotism as part of any school’s mission. At the West, students learn a little history and are informed about the military and that “these are the guys that have stood up and protected you.”
The Nicholson letter outlined how this is done, with things like the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance over the public address system, lessons on the Gettysburg Address, observances around Patriots Day, Veterans Day and Memorial Day and organized efforts to send gifts and packages to U.S. troops serving abroad.
In addition, there is careful respect for the flag. The West is one of the few schools that obeys a state regulation which requires lowering the flag to half-staff when fallen soldiers are brought home to Massachusetts, according to Cornacchio. He approached Nicholson, asking him to take part in a ceremony on one occasion when the flag was lowered,
“Of course,” the sergeant said, “I was touched that he would do that.” But when he arrived, Nicholson says, he discovered the school lacked the appropriate flag. “I ran back home and got my own.”
The letter to the Seven Seals program looked like a long shot. “I thought about it. And then I sent it in.” Nicholson heard back in 24 hours. “They won,” he says, still sounding a little surprised. “The school won. This is really pretty big.”
Formerly a member of the regular Army, the 18th Airborne, Nicholson joined the Guard after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. “I didn’t want to watch another war on TV,” he said.
Devotion to the military is in his blood, going back to an ancestor who fought in King Philip’s War in 1675. Other ancestors fought at Gettysburg and survived Andersonville prison. A great-uncle was deployed to Europe in World War I, and his father saw action in the Philippines in World War II.
Nicholson serves now in one of America’s original National Guard units, the 101st Engineer’s Battalion, which traces its lineage to the First Muster on Salem Common in 1637.
“It’s kind of the way we grew up,” he says, noting there are plenty of reasons for patriotism, for wanting to serve. “We’ve got it pretty good in this country.”