OUR OPINION: Guardians at graduation

In the Alerus Center in Grand Forks, a pedestrian walkway runs along the south wall, about 30 feet above what would be the end zone at a UND football game.

In the Alerus Center in Grand Forks, a pedestrian walkway runs along the south wall, about 30 feet above what would be the end zone at a UND football game.

The walkway looked barren Sunday during the Red River and Central high school graduations. The graduates filled the seats on the arena floor, and proud parents and friends populated the stands; so the walkway was about the only empty space in view.

And yet ...

And yet, if you tilted your head and squinted just a bit, you could see them (or at least think you could.)

They filed onto the walkway as the families and other well-wishers climbed the steps in the stands. They greeted each other warmly, shaking hands and clapping one another on the back as they lined the walkway rail.


Now and then, one spoke to his neighbor and, always with a broad grin, pointed down to a graduate on the floor.

Two things made this group stand out. The first is that despite their raucous behavior, no sound issued forth. From the podium on the floor came the principal's command that all present should refrain from cheering until the graduates had collected their diplomas. This, the walkway group ignored, whistling and clapping and pulling one another to the rail as certain graduates crossed the stage.

But the graduates and the families in the stands paid no attention whatsoever. For all was silence on that walkway, as quiet as if the rowdy spectators there were but a company of mimes.

As for the second thing: The second thing that set the group apart, of course, was that they were all in uniform.

And what uniforms! America's military history of the past 235 years seemed represented: here a man in the blue jacket, tan pants and tricorner hat of the U.S. 8th Continental Regiment of the Revolutionary War, there a man in green fatigues stenciled on the left breast pocket with the letters "USMC." It was uniform he'd worn while wading ashore on the beach of Tarawa in 1943.

The hijinks stopped with the first notes of "The Star Spangled Banner." To a man, the walkway brigade ceased what they were doing and stood at attention -- an inspiring sight.

Then -- what's this? Yes ... yes, that's him: Pvt. Aurora Dille, still clad in the blue tunic and kepi hat he'd worn in the 18th Wisconsin, now being ushered by his comrades to the walkway rail.

Not long after enlisting at age 49, Dille had been wounded in the foot and captured in the battle of Shiloh in the Civil War. Historians call the spot the Hornet's Nest.


He'd spent months in savage conditions in a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp, then was exchanged and went home to his wife in Wisconsin. But his wound got the better of him, and about a year later, he died.

One month after that, a daughter -- Alice Dille -- was born.

Pvt. Dille wiped his eyes on his tunic sleeve. For crossing the stage below to collect her diploma was his great-great-great granddaughter: Rose Dennis, Red River High School class of 2011.

That's just one story among many of the old soldiers who lined the rail. All of them had tales to tell. All of them were connected to the graduates in some way.

And all of them took immense pride in the proceedings, even though few of the students even knew their ancestors' names.

For all of this -- the diplomas, the grad parties, the Memorial Day cookouts, the college decisions, the careers, the next generation growing up in the Land of the Free ... yes.

All of this was worth fighting -- and dying -- for, the soldiers knew. And who couldn't help but be proud of the fine young Americans below?

The ceremony ended. The graduates and their families filed out. And as a final glance showed, the walkway had emptied, too. A shadow crossed the surface where the sentinels had lately stood.


-- Tom Dennis for the Herald

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