Fitch High School to honor grad who died in 1983 Beirut attack

Wendell Gaston, a custodian at Northeast Academy in Groton, on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018, in the superintendent’s office holds a plaque in honor of his childhood friend William Hart, a 1981 graduate of Fitch High School who died in the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon. The plaque will be installed in the lobby of Fitch High School. Hart will be honored at a Veterans Day ceremony Friday at Fitch High School, after months of research by students there. (Kimberly Drelich/The Day)
Wendell Gaston, a custodian at Northeast Academy in Groton, on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018, in the superintendent’s office holds a plaque in honor of his childhood friend William Hart, a 1981 graduate of Fitch High School who died in the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon. The plaque will be installed in the lobby of Fitch High School. Hart will be honored at a Veterans Day ceremony Friday at Fitch High School, after months of research by students there. (Kimberly Drelich/The Day)

Marine Lance Corporal William Hart
Marine Lance Cpl. William Hart (Courtesy of family)

Groton — Fitch High School students are honoring a young man who once walked the halls of the high school and later gave his life in service to the country, to show that he is not forgotten.

Marine Lance Cpl. William Hart, a 1981 graduate of Fitch High School, died in the bombing of the Marine Corps barracks on Oct. 23, 1983, in Beirut, Lebanon, that claimed the lives of 241 U.S. service members.  

After months of research, students will commemorate Hart during the Veterans Day Ceremony at 10:20 a.m. Friday at the high school. The event will feature the Marine Color Guard, speeches about Hart and a moment of silence for all veterans and service members who have died. The school district has invited Hart's friends and family to the ceremony, and community members also are welcome to attend. The ceremony will be followed by a luncheon.

Superintendent Michael Graner will present a plaque dedicated to Hart that will be installed in the high school lobby, alongside existing plaques dedicated to William Seely, the first Groton resident killed in World War II, and other Fitch graduates who died in World War II or the Vietnam War.

Graner said the ceremony is an opportunity to finally give Hart the recognition he deserves and also bring awareness to the fact that Fitch is a high school with many graduates who gave up their lives for the country.

The commemoration came about after Jennifer Donnel, a Mystic resident and the mother of Marines, contacted Graner last year, after finding Hart's grave at Cedar Grove Cemetery in New London. Hart was a year ahead of Donnel at Fitch High School. She has been reading Hart's name for the past five years during a memorial ceremony in Putnam that honors the military personnel who died in Beirut.

Graner thought it would be best to honor Hart during the school's Veterans Day Ceremony and also have Fitch students research Hart and the 1983 terrorist attack. Students at Fitch High School, under the direction of Carmita Hodge, the chair of the social studies department, did research and, with the media specialist, also found newspaper clippings that documented Hart's death and the deaths of the other service members, Graner said.

Hodge said about six students had volunteered to find out information about Hart, and much of what they learned came from his classmates and a thorough searching of the internet. She and the students, who began the research last school year, met every week for about two months until they exhausted every resource available.

Graner said it's important educationally for students to understand the progression from the 1983 terrorist attack in Beirut, the first large-scale Middle Eastern terrorism event that involved the U.S. military, to the later 9/11 terrorist attacks and continuing struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Donnel said the Marines, who were in Lebanon on a peace-keeping mission, deserve to be remembered. She said she's grateful that Graner, the history department and the students pushed the commemoration along, so that Hart and the men won't be forgotten.

"William was a part of our community," Donnel said. "He went to our school. He deserves the honor and the respect, as does his family."

Hart's childhood friend Wendell Gaston, a 1982 graduate of Fitch High School who works as a custodian at Northeast Academy Elementary School, said it's awesome that Hart is being recognized.

Gaston remembers as a child playing basketball and football with him and biking around Groton and New London, with Hart leading the way on his bicycle adorned with horns, streamers and lights. Gaston described Hart as "a leader" and responsible. He worked after school while in high school and drove his friends around town in a car he bought with the money he earned.

"You could trust him and whatever he told you, he would do it," Gaston said. "He would stand by his word, and he would always look out for you ... I was a little younger than him, so he would always look out for me."

Hart's sister, Constance, said she was grateful for the students' recognition of her brother, who she said was soft-spoken and kind-hearted and a fan of KC and the Sunshine Band.

"It feels great that somebody's honoring him," she said. "I just feel good about it. I'm so thankful that he's being still remembered."

k.drelich@theday.com

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