When Michael Smith moved to Charlotte’s Tryon Hills neighborhood in 1962, he found a friend in Don Mullis.
The teenagers shared classes at Garinger High School and worked together as bag boys at a local grocery store, playing football and baseball in their free time. After high school, they both enlisted in the Marine Corps and fought in Vietnam.
Mullis returned home in 1968. Smith never did.
Friday, nearly 50 years after Smith was killed in action, Mullis will honor his old friend. Mullis will be one of dozens of people expected to watch Garinger dedicate a memorial to 15 former students who lost their lives in Vietnam.
The monument represents a special opportunity to honor Garinger’s history, alumni say, a way to guarantee that the sacrifices of former students are not forgotten.
But it also serves as a commitment to Garinger’s future: Fifteen scholarship funds for Garinger’s graduating seniors were established this year, one in honor of each of the fallen students.
“We’re honoring these guys from the past, but we’re also helping the kids over there now,” said Ron Tucker, a Garinger alum and Vietnam veteran who helped lead plans for the memorial.
The monument was erected in front of the school this summer – a gift from members of the Class of 1964 in honor of their 50th class reunion, which will be held this weekend. Six feet tall, the stone memorial is inscribed with the names of the 15 men who died.
The group of ex-Garinger classmates began seriously pursuing plans for the monument about six months ago, Tucker said. But the love and loss that motivated them has been a part of their lives for decades.
“We’re real gratified that it’s coming to pass,” said Larry Walker, a member of the Class of 1964 and Vietnam veteran who worked on the monument committee. “It’s been a labor of love for everybody.”
Pain still felt
Friday’s dedication ceremony will include former classmates and family telling the individual stories of the 15 who attended Garinger at some point in their high school days – remembering them as war heroes, but also as classmates, friends, brothers and sons.
Fifteen wreaths will be laid around the monument, and the 82nd Airborne Division’s band will come from Fort Bragg to play.
“We’re going to do … what should have been done a long time ago,” said Don Thompson, a committee member and Vietnam veteran who spoke with families.
Members of the monument committee spent weeks researching the lives of their fallen classmates, interviewing family members and friends to learn as much as they could.
“Their pain is still palpable after all this time,” Thompson said.
They found stories like that of Jimmy Williams, who fought in Vietnam with the Air Force after leaving Garinger.
In the winter of 1967, Williams wrote a letter to his mother explaining that his squadron had “adopted” an orphanage of Vietnamese children. Don’t send me anything for Christmas, he wrote. Instead, he wanted to help the children.
“Could you send candy and chewing gum that would keep?” he wrote his mother. “And maybe some little toys that don’t cost much? Now don’t feel obligated to do all this but … I don’t really need anything, and this would be the best Christmas I could get.”
She collected as many toys as possible, involving her church and even attracting the attention of Observer columnist Kays Gary, who wrote about Williams’ request in the paper. The result was a delivery so large that Williams had difficulty finding space to store it all.
“He wanted to play Santa Claus,” said Wayne Williams, Jimmy’s brother. “These kids got a Christmas they probably never forgot.”
Four days after Christmas, however, the Williams family learned that Jimmy had been declared missing in action. The family did not receive closure until the 1990s, when Jimmy’s remains were located and he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
“It tells you what type of person he was,” Wayne Williams said about his brother’s Christmas wish. “The last thought we had of Jimmy was this fine gesture.”
Wayne Williams served in the Air Force during Vietnam and will attend Friday’s dedication.
“These guys are all heroes, every one of them,” Walker said. “These men did their duty, and they paid the price for their families and their country.”
Past and present
Garinger Principal Michael Drye said that a situation like Vietnam is “incomprehensible” for many of today’s students. The memorial offers a chance to make the sacrifices of past students easier to understand and appreciate.
“When they lost their lives, they weren’t much older than our juniors and seniors today,” Drye said. “They were Wildcats, too.”
The idea of tying scholarships to the memorial came early on, Tucker said. A group of classmates from throughout the 1960s came together to found the Garinger Education Foundation in February, soon incorporating it as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.
Inspiration for the foundation came from the Class of 1963, who raised $30,000 for scholarships in honor of their 50th reunion last year. The foundation distributed the money this spring – $2,000 each for 15 students, in honor of the 15 men.
“We were almost dumbstruck,” Drye said. “Things like that don’t fall out of the sky every day.”
While Garinger has always drawn students from working-class neighborhoods, it has become increasingly high-poverty in recent decades and is now one of the lowest-performing high schools in CMS. The alumni leading the foundation want to help.
“It takes alumni who have the perspective to say, ‘The kids at Garinger are different from when I went to school there,’ ” Drye said. “But the real power comes in when they manage to see the similarities.”
Tucker serves as president of the foundation. He is pleased with the first year’s outcome, he said, but he wants to do even more.
“It was a working-class school when I went there,” said Tucker, who owns a financial planning and insurance group. “But Garinger was a place where I got encouraged and was given a lot of hope by my teachers. I’ve been blessed in life, and a lot of it started because I was at a good public school.”
He wants to help give today’s Garinger students similar opportunities. In future years, he hopes to grow the pool of money for scholarships and help even more students.
“We’ve moved a long way in a short time, but we have a very long way to go,” Tucker said.