Mount Ephraim EA honors heroes on Patriot Day

Published on Friday, September 14, 2012

Mt. Ephraim Hometown Heroes
NJEA Secretary-Treasurer Marie Blistan and Mt. Ephraim residents write reflections on 9/11.
Pastor Bill Brendel, one of the Mount Ephraim Hometown Heroes singled out for recognition at an event organized on Sept. 11 by the Mount Ephraim Education Association (MEEA) in Camden County was quick to shine the light on another hero: his Uncle Anthony, a veteran of World War II, who served in the Pacific Theater.

“You need to talk to him,” Brendel exclaimed. “They left him for dead on the USS Bowers! He’s the real hero!”

Proud of his military service, Seaman First Class Anthony Natale launched into his story.

The USS Bowers was a destroyer escort of the United States Navy that was named in honor of Ensign Robert K. Bowers, who was killed in action during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. In March 1945, the USS Bowers was headed to Okinawa to take part in the now famous offensive to liberate that island. On April 16, the bridge of the ship was struck in a kamikaze attack by a plane carrying 500 lbs. of explosives. A bomb descended 20 feet into the ship before detonating.

Natale lay unconscious among men killed in the attack. He was thought dead by those looking for survivors. In all 37 men were killed, 11 reported missing, and many of the 56 wounded later died.

Natale has no memory of any glimmer of consciousness, but later learned that it was his own faint words had saved his life.

“I met the guy who rescued me,” Natale said. “He told me that everyone was stepping over me to get to survivors, thinking I was dead until they heard me whisper, ‘Don’t leave me.’”

Heroes saluted 

Mt. Ephraim Hometown Heroes
Hometown Hero and Good Tidings Church Pastor Bill Brendel called his Uncle Anthony, who survived a kamikaze attack while serving in the Pacific, the real hero. From left: Pastor Brendel, Mary Brendel, Anthony Natale, and Rebecca Natale.
But Natale was not the only hero with a story to tell that night, and an NJEA hero, Beth Egan, is doing her part to make sure that the heroes that surround the residents of Mt. Ephraim every day get the recognition they deserve.

Through MEEA, Egan conceived of the Mount Ephraim Hometown Heroes and Family Fun Evening as a way to honor the memory of the lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001, and to honor the everyday heroism found among the residents of Mount Ephraim.

She and a committee of MEEA and Mount Ephraim Paraprofessionals Association (MEPA) members planned an evening that drew the participation of the fire department, the police department, the American Legion, the Parent Teacher Organization, the Boy Scouts, local churches, and area businesses. Free food, face painting, arts and crafts activities, and a voter registration tables were staffed by members of MEEA and MEPA.

An NJEA PRIDE in Public Education grant helped fund the event, which was held in the parking lot behind Raymond Kershaw Middle School.

The event captured the attention of NJEA Secretary-Treasurer Marie Blistan, who accepted an invitation to speak.

“The Mount Ephraim Education Association put together a wonderful event,” she said. “When it comes to heroes, the members of MEEA lead the way.”

A fleet of motorcycles, ridden by the members of Warriors Watch, captured the attention of the hundreds of children at the event. Warriors Watch provides motorcycle escorts for military units returning from war, for units deploying, and for individual warriors coming home from, or going off to, war.

Warriors Watch had escorted Mt. Ephraim resident, Lt. Candice Bujak home last May, leading her to Mary Bray Elementary School where she was reunited with her daughter.

An NJEA PRIDE in Public Education grant helped fund the event, which was held in the parking lot behind Raymond Kershaw Middle School.

A place to store memories

Mt. Ephraim Hometown Heroes
Mt. Ephraim Hometown Heroes and Family Fun Evening chair Beth Egan leads the Pledge of Allegiance during the flag ceremony and dedication program.
Mary Bray Elementary School teacher Sherry Roback sat down at a table set aside for residents and school staff to gather their thoughts before writing their reflections on 9/11.

“September 11, 2001, truly was a sunny Tuesday morning, and it was a day I’ll always remember,” she wrote, going on to describe how she learned of the tragic events unfolding as she walked her students to their class. “Each hour before dismissal felt like years. I could not wait to return home to my family. This truly was a dark, sunny Tuesday.”

Hers was just one of many remembrances gathered at the table, which Roback staffed. Among them was Felipe Jimenez who wrote that he and his family moved from New York City to South Jersey just a year after the terrorist attacks. His wife had been working at an insurance company just behind the North Tower. Longtime borough resident Grace DeFord had been hard at work in a Center City Philadelphia office not far from the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall.

“I wanted to be home with my family,” DeFord wrote. “I felt shock and fear and I thanked God for our blessings. Please never forget our heroes on that fateful day.”

Those who wrote a memory tied red, white, and blue ribbon to the fence bordering the school parking lot. The memories will be kept in binder housed in the middle school library.

Flag ceremony and dedication

Mt. Ephraim Hometown Heroes
Hundreds of Mt. Ephraim residents turned out for the event.
A flag ceremony and dedication speeches paid tribute to those who lost their lives on Sept. 11, 2001, those who worked in the recovery, and to honor Mt. Ephraim’s own “hometown heroes.”

 “Who knows what set the tiniest of events in motion for the large and catastrophic attacks on 9/11 to occur?” Egan asked in her remarks. “But today we’re here to examine, more importantly, the tiniest of events that set in motion the good works that are done to combat evil, violence, sadness, sickness, tragedy, hunger, and despair.”

Following the presentation of the colors by American Legion Post 150 and an invocation, MEEA members Sharon Eichman and Debbie Kulpa read the poem “The Names” by poet Billy Collins, which honored the victims of 9/11.

Pastor Brendel was honored as a Hometown Hero by Vicki Palaganas, who spoke on behalf of Brendel’s congregation from Glad Tidings Church.

“I know he doesn’t think of himself as a hero, but those of us who know him can say that he has a hero’s heart,” Palaganas said. “He has gone the distance for others in need regardless of the cost.”

MEEA member Marion Hodum spoke to recognize Kathryn Cain, who had recently passed away. Cain was a lifelong Mt. Ephraim resident, teacher in the school district, a Sunday School teacher, and an active member of the Women’s Club, among many other activities. In retirement she was elected to the school board and served as its president for many years.

“Kathyrn’s love of the teaching profession, her love of the subject she taught, her love of her students, and the love she had for this town was immeasurable,” Hodum said. “Kathryn was a part of just about everything in this town at one time or another.”

Blistan offers remarks

In her speech, NJEA Secretary-Treasurer Marie Blistan talked about what she had written when she visited Roback’s table. Blistan remembered that she had been teaching her 11th grade students when the news of the attack reached Washington Township High School. She wondered how she could help her students deal with the horrific events that day.

“But then I thought, in spite of that devastation, that our country—America—remained undaunted,” she said. “And it remained undaunted because what I can teach about today are the ordinary men and women who became heroes in the face of adversity: men and women who taught us the true meaning of ‘Home of the Brave.’”

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