NOTE: Each week throughout the school year, we will visit a school across Eastern Carver County Schools. Some weeks the plan may be to stop in multiple classrooms by grade, or by subject. Other weeks it may highlight a certain specialist group. The purpose is to give families and our community a glimpse into the every-day learning environment happening in our buildings. A chance to spotlight the incredible work our teachers and staff do on a daily basis for our students, and to showcase the incredible work our students produce as well. So, keep your Eye on ECCS!
Two decades ago, Troy Smutka was called down to the principal’s office. No, he wasn’t in trouble. He was asked by then Chaska Middle School West principal Sheryl Hough to head-up the still-very-new Veterans Day Ceremony.
The initial ceremony was the brainchild of Hough and teacher Dianne Strandberg.
“Dianne retired and Sheryl knew the personal connection I had (Smutka has dozens of veterans in his family tree). To be honest, being the point person, I was a little nervous. But I’m glad I said yes,” Smutka said. Smutka has been teaching social studies at West since 1993.
West honored veterans for the 22nd year on Friday, Nov. 10, in an all-school ceremony that began with a flag raising and 21-gun salute from the Chaska VFW Post 1791 and American Legion Post 57 Color Guard, moving indoors to the gymnasium for the program.
“It is so powerful to see our students, staff, families, and community members come together to honor our veterans for their dedication to providing us all of the rights we have in our country,” West principal Dr. Alicia Fischer said.
This year’s ceremony included music selections from the 7th Grade Band (“The Star Spangled Banner”), 7th and 8th Grade Orchestra (“Freedom Finale”), 6th Grade Choir (“Thank You, Soldiers”), 7th Grade Band (“Marches of the Armed Forces”), 7th and 8th Grade combined Choir (“We Honor You”), and eighth grade student Milo Pickford playing “Taps.”
Additionally, five students wrote speeches from the heart about what freedom means to them.
“Their speeches were so impactful that you could hear a pin drop in the audience,” Dr. Fischer said.
“(The ceremony) has always been student-led. There is more learning happening when students are involved. We teach them the history, what Veterans Day means, the freedoms that exist because of our veterans. We ask students if they know any veterans, some will raise their hand. They’ll go home and find out they know way more than they thought,” Smutka said.
Students often ask Smutka each fall when they are going to start preparing for the Veterans Day Ceremony. Students design posters for the school and gymnasium as well as personal “Thank You” postcards that were handed out to each veteran in attendance.
This year was also special in that Minnesota Department of Education Commissioner Willie Jett joined in recognizing the contributions of our veterans.
“This was the first year we used both sides of the bleachers for seating,” Smutka said. With students, there were around 1,000 people in attendance. “Originally, we had 15 to 20 veterans attend. Most years, when the weather is good, we’ll have 50 to 70 veterans in attendance.”
Through the years, the West event has grown in significance and reputation and it is now recognized as one of the most impressive and meaningful Veterans Day celebrations in the area.
“Unfortunately, some of the first people we connected with at the Chaska VFW and Legion have passed away. We have lost a lot of familiar faces, including Ralph Hanson, the post commander, who was just so amazing to work with. I think we’re seeing more active duty members, way more women. When we started, it was mainly Army veterans. Now we have all four branches represented,” Smutka said.
The personal connection to the ceremony grows for Smutka. His daughter Lindsay, a Chaska High School graduate, recently graduated from Officers Training. She has plans after college graduation to serve in the Army as a nurse. “She’s following in the footsteps of my wife’s sister,” Smutka said.
Thank you to all of those who made the ceremony possible: the West Parent Teacher Organization, principal Dr. Alicia Fischer, Chaska VFW Post Commander Rich Daniels, West media specialist Erinn Flowers, West music directors Eli Johnson, Tanya Gabel, Eric Songer, and Mari Jorgenson-Rathke, the CMSW Tech Crew, CMSW Student Council, CMSW Custodial Staff, and the Veterans Day Committee. A special thanks to all of the veterans for their service!