By Jason Major

I’ve seen a lot of inspiring moments during my educational career, from clutch plays on the diamond during my time as a baseball coach to academic achievements from students who faced more challenges than many of us see in a lifetime.

Still, few moments surpass what I saw in the classrooms of William Dever Elementary School on Friday, Nov. 10, 2017. That day was Veterans Day, and as Principal of the Chicago Public School, I was honored to partner with Honor Flight Chicago and welcome 28 veterans to speak with our students about their experience in the military. Twenty-eight of our 8th graders and their teacher, Mandy Guzman, gave up hours and hours of their own time during lunch and after school to plan the event (Here’s news coverage from CBS 2 Chicago about the event).

There was a sense of community and pride in our school that day that was unmatched. The veterans, including several World War II vets and nearly a dozen Korean War veterans, were so engaging with the kids, and the kids just ate it up. You can read about historical events, but these were veterans who experienced history first-hand. They were primary sources for our students, and that made the experience of celebrating Veterans Day so much more meaningful.

Nearly seven months later, I had the awesome experience of flying with Honor Flight Chicago to Washington, D.C., to serve as a Guardian for one of the 101 World War II and Korean War heroes being recognized that day. My veteran was Robert Keel, a Korean War veteran who served from 1950-53 and then went on to teach in the Chicago Public School system for more than 30 years.

We hit it off right away, and it quickly became clear to me that we were going to have a great day. In retrospect, Robert and I didn’t talk much about his service. To be honest, we were too busy talking about his kids, his love of fishing, and his passion for teaching.

“To put it simply, my day with Robert and the other veterans was the best honor I’ve ever gotten in my educational career. Easily.”

Jason Major, Dever Elementary School principal

“I returned home inspired by the trip and excited to figure out new ways to help introduce more areas schools to Honor Flight Chicago.”

Jason Major, Dever Elementary School principal

There were so many great memories from the day, but the image I’ll always remember is Robert coming off the plane in D.C. and just being overcome by emotion as volunteers and strangers lined the Dulles Airport gate area to great the veterans. Robert pulled me aside afterward and confessed that he didn’t realize how much people appreciated what he did.

I think Robert would have been fine with the day ending there, but there was so much more left in store for him — and me. Seeing all the veterans and how strangers reacted to them — particularly the ones who walked up to them and thanked them for their service — all I can say is there was such pride that I felt being around them all day.

To put it simply, my day with Robert and the other veterans was the best honor I’ve ever gotten in my educational career. Easily.

I returned home inspired by the trip and excited to figure out new ways to help introduce more areas schools to Honor Flight Chicago. The organization’s Operation Education program is a phenomenal way for students to connect with veterans and learn from their stories and experiences. Many of the eighth graders at Dever are talking about trying to get their new high schools involved with Honor Flight Chicago’s Operation Education, and our Dever students have written and collected more than 2,000 letters for Honor Flight Chicago to use as part of its Mail Call surprise for veterans.

If you know of a school that would be interested in getting involved with the Operation Education program, let me help you get involved with Honor Flight Chicago. The veterans were an inspiration to our students on Veterans Day and they were an inspiration to me as a Guardian.

How can Honor Flight Chicago and its veterans inspire you?

Robert Keel

Learn about Operation Education