Students attend Second World War veteran’s funeral
Rhema Christian School made an impact on the Peterborough community recently when a number of students attended the funeral service of Wally Smith, 83.
Smith, described as Peterborough’s “ultimate soldier,” died last Saturday morning.
It was a day after he had spoken to hundreds of students during a D-Day service at Ashburnham Memorial Park.
Rhema’s Grades 5-8 students had attended the D-Day service and several had asked Smith, a Second World War veteran, to sign their yellow school shirts. It was something Smith loved to do, recalls principal Ray Hendriks.
“Wally loved the fact that we always showed up in our yellow t-shirts,” Hendriks adds. “He loved the fact that we showed up. In fact, he and a number of others would call it the sea of yellow.”
The Rhema community had a particular affection for Wally because he was one of the few veterans who spoke very openly about his war experiences and did so very well.
The school choir sang the national anthem at the D-Day service, as it had done so for several years, and a student read a poem.
When the news of Smith’s passing over the weekend broke, the Rhema community was deeply affected, according to the principal.
“It actually impacted everybody here quite deeply because we had just talked to him, we had heard him, appreciated his speech, and obviously he had signed a number of the t-shirts.”
The decision was made for several students to attend the funeral and June 11 a group of Rhema’s Grade 7 and 8 students joined the large number of people gathered at St. John’s Anglican Church to commemorate Smith’s life.
Hendriks says there was a noticeable hush that came over the congregation as the students entered – Rhema was the only school to attend the funeral service.
Then Smith’s son came over to the group and told them, with tears streaming down his face, “This is the greatest honour you could have paid my father.”
Hendriks says he was holding back tears himself as he realized what the presence of the students meant to the family; Smith had been a man who loved talking to children and young people.
During the ceremony reference was made to one of Rhema’s yellow t-shirts, which had been signed by Smith only days earlier, and which had a student had graciously donated back to the family at their request.
Amanda, Jillian and Sammy were three of the Grade 7 students who attended the funeral service.
All three say they felt the sadness of Smith’s passing but have been deeply affected by the remarkable legacy he leaves.
Jillian says she has heard many of Smith’s stories and they’ve really brought home to her the awfulness of war.
“I really learned how bad (the war) really was,” she says.
Hearing others talk about Smith during the funeral service, Amanda says she saw “how much they respected him.”
Sammy recalls family-members speaking to Smith’s commitment and integrity.
“He was really strong; if he started a job, he would finish it,” she says.
Hendriks says Rhema’s involvement in D-Day and Remembrance Day as well as the funeral of a local war veteran speak to the school’s commitment to teaching students to understand and honour those have made sacrifices for their country.
In addition, these kinds of activities reveal the school’s commitment to engaging in the broader community, he says.
“We set a pattern for our community – students, staff, parents alike – saying that we are going to be a part of the larger Peterborough community, not only in terms of some of the fun events but also in terms of the remembrances and memorials.”