For alumni and military veterans Jerry Hester, Benny Suggs and Thomas Skolnicki, the May 1 U.S. World War I Centennial Commission celebration at NC State’s Memorial Tower is more than just a half-hour event on the list of 100 worldwide commemorations about the end of the great conflict.
It’s an opportunity for all to learn about the sacrifices made by NC State students and alumni, and the commitment that the school has made since its inception to military service and leadership. Nearly 2,000 students and alumni served in the global war, and the Belltower includes the names of the 34 who died in combat, in training and from sickness.
All three have worked tirelessly in making sure the only centennial commemoration event on a college campus will be loud, both in color and in noise, with a full military ceremony that will include a 21-gun salute and a flyover of F-15s from the 4th Fighter Wing stationed at Goldsboro’s Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.
“We want to wake up the area with North Carolina’s major event to celebrate the Centennial Commission,” says Hester, a 1953 NC State graduate and retired U.S. Air Force veteran. “We have the nation’s only belltower that is dedicated to students [and alumni] who sacrificed everything in World War I.
“They deserve to be remembered with an event like this.”
NC State professor Bill Fonteno’s horticulture science class has devoted the entire spring semester to making sure more than 1,000 red poppies — the international symbol for remembering military service and sacrifice — will be blooming in planters surrounding the Belltower, plus another 1,060 artificial remembrance poppies decorating the grounds for 3 p.m. event, which is open to all students, faculty, staff and members of the surrounding community.
A Tradition of Military Service and Science
Hester, who served with the 429th Fighter Bomber Squadron, spearheaded the effort to include NC State in the commission’s 100 celebrations. A Winston-Salem resident for the last 15 years, he was nominated by North Carolina Senator Richard Burr and appointed by President Barack Obama as one of the nation’s six commissioners for the centennial project.
Hester spent his post-military career in the defense industry and has devoted his retirement working to remember those who served.
“I credit everything I have ever done or accomplished to NC State,” Hester says. “To me, the Belltower symbolizes the commitment the school has always had to military service and military science.”
It’s a tradition that he has passed down in his family — his granddaughter, Isabelle Rocco, is a sophomore studying at NC State.
Hester approached Suggs, the executive director of the NC State Alumni Association, about three years ago to begin planning this event.
Suggs, a retired rear admiral and former aviator in the U.S. Navy, has a particular allegiance to the World War I commemoration. His grandfather — and all-time hero — served in the First World War. Suggs’ father and three uncles volunteered to serve in World War II. (One of his uncles died in the hedgerows of France after the 1944 invasion of Normandy and another died while fighting in Europe.)
“This is of particular importance to me and my family,” Suggs says. “But it is also of great importance to our school, with its long history of military service.”
Belltower Commemorates the Fallen
Though many alumni have confessed they knew little about the long history of the 115-foot Belltower — which was begun in 1921 and dedicated in 1949 — while they were students at NC State, Suggs knew of it before he ever enrolled as a psychology major, thanks to two agriculture education teachers he had in high school in Columbus County.
“It is the absolute focal point of our university,” Suggs says. “And it stands for the service, the passion and the loyalty we all have towards our alma mater.
“This event and the centennial commission’s remembrance of the war, affords us the special opportunity to recognize what our students did back then and to do it right.”
Skolnicki, a former U.S. Navy lieutenant, is the university’s landscape architect and a 1997 graduate with a Master of Landscape Architecture. He, project manager Brian Carter and the university’s grounds services are responsible for making sure the poppies are prominently displayed in the area surrounding the Belltower.
“I’m honored to be involved with this effort centered around the Belltower, one of our nine Hallowed Places on Campus,” Skolnicki says. “I hope it raises awareness of the lives, service and sacrifices of those memorialized on the plaque in the tower’s shrine room, and provides a deeper context as to why the Belltower is such an important symbol to our campus community.”
The commemoration comes on the heels of the announcement that alumni Bill and Frances Henry of Gastonia have provided the lead giftin renovating, repairing and completing the original plans for the Belltower. Their gift will include purchasing 48 of the 55 bells needed, a carillon and the interior staircase that was originally designed for the granite tower, along with general improvements to repair water damage in the shrine room.
“This is the perfect time,” Hester says, “for the world to remember the sacrifices NC State and its students made a century ago.”