Students enjoy lunch with a vet: Nearly 100 vets attend Kennedy lunchtime event

WILLMAR -- Micayla Hobson has told her friends "only about a million times," according to them, that her dad is a soldier. On Friday, they got to see it for themselves, as Sgt. 1st Class Shane Hobson ate lunch with them in the Kennedy Elementary ...

WILLMAR -- Micayla Hobson has told her friends "only about a million times," according to them, that her dad is a soldier.

On Friday, they got to see it for themselves, as Sgt. 1st Class Shane Hobson ate lunch with them in the Kennedy Elementary School cafeteria.

Veterans of wars from the 20th and 21st centuries joined students at Kennedy on Friday as the Willmar school honored veterans for their service. Seventy-seven had signed up to visit, but more came. In the end, the lunchroom had fed 97 veterans along with the school's 800 students.

Among them were Henry J. Ruter, a corpsman during World War II; John Gorans, an Army veteran who served during the Korean War; Daryl Link, a Navy veteran of the Vietnam War; and Lance Hauser, a National Guard soldier who came home from Iraq just 3ยฝ weeks ago.

Many wore uniforms, at least one wore a dress uniform, and others wore street clothes with their Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars hats.


Hobson's 1st Airborne Corps unit is preparing to ship out to Iraq next year. When he heard that Kennedy had invited veterans to lunch, he packed his uniform for his weekend trip to Willmar. He is stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C.

Hobson and his wife, Jessica, a Willmar native and an Army veteran, surprised their daughters Thursday night with his visit. He visited two lunch periods to eat with Shayna, 5, and Micayla, 8.

Jessica Hobson said she and the girls moved to Willmar to be close to family during her husband's deployment.

Though he's been deployed to Africa twice and Afghanistan twice, he said, "this one will be the longest of them all."

Kennedy Principal Scott Hisken said it was humbling to see so many veterans willing to visit with the students.

"This kind of learning, where kids are able to interact with history, is something that's pretty meaningful," he said. He looked out over the lunchroom dotted with veterans and said, "We've started a tradition."

School social worker Betty Damhof came up with the idea of inviting veterans to eat lunch with the students.

Students study different character words throughout the year, things like responsibility and respect. The word for November is "gratitude."


"I was thinking about how to teach kids about gratitude, and I thought of Veterans Day," she said. She asked the Kennedy PTSA to pay for the cost of the veterans' meals, and they agreed.

She wrote letters to local veteran organizations and contacted the National Guard Armory to get the word out. The idea had support from all over the school, Damhof said.

Teachers stepped in to decorate the cafeteria with patriotic artwork from students and paper chains in red, white and blue. Students made thank-you cards and wrote poems which were given to each veteran.

The cafeteria staff pitched in to make more than the usual amount of food. The meal on Friday included chicken strips, rice, vegetables and fruit.

"Everybody had to work together" to make the day a success, Damhof said.

The school feeds its students in eight 20-minutes shifts of about 100 students each. At the beginning of each shift, Hisken spoke to the students about their visitors. "They have protected our country through their service and sacrifice," he explained before having the veterans stand for applause.

Many of the veterans were relatives or family friends of students, but some just heard about the lunch and came to school, Hisken said. The presence of so many visitors kept the lunchroom much calmer than usual, he added.

The veterans were popular guests, and many said they appreciated the school's gesture.


Ruter ate lunch with his friend Darlene Houdek and her great-granddaughter Rachel Swanson. Link ate with his granddaughter Kayla Link and Gorans with his granddaughter Erin Johnson. All the girls are second-graders.

Kayla and Erin and their grandfathers sat at a table with classmates. The veterans talked with the girls about what they like to do after school.

Rachel gave Ruter and Houdek hugs before she thanked them for coming and left for recess.

Scott Irwin, a National Guard staff sergeant, was mobbed by the friends of his fourth-grade daughter Florence. His wife, Renae, a lunchroom supervisor at Kennedy, was there, too. The girls teased Irwin and punched him in the shoulder as he teased them right back.

Korean War veteran Lucien Vlaminck noticed Irwin's cavalry patch on his uniform. He's been in the cavalry, too, Vlaminck said, and the two spent a few moments talking about the types of weapons used then and now.

Hauser, who is also Damhof's nephew, ate lunch with his cousin, first-grader Denise Bryson. One of her friends, Carlos Rodriguez, sat right next to Hauser.

"He says he wants to be a soldier someday," said Hauser, who also said, "It's good to be home."

Carlos lingered after the others had gone outside to play, full of questions about tanks. As he finished his chocolate milk, he flashed a big grin and said, "I can't believe I talked to a soldier."

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