Wes Becton decided to tell York High School students about his unlikely friendships with two other Army veterans.
He remembered his late friend, Abner Ganet, and the former Elmhurst mayor's eloquence when Ganet met with students and relived memories of serving in World War II.
"You could hear a pin drop because he just had this ability to convey a message that's important, especially in the days and times that we live in," Becton said.
In front of his own audience at a Veterans Day assembly Friday at the Elmhurst school, Becton told York students that he doesn't have the same gift.
But he was wrong.
As he looked back on the common bonds he shared with men of different races, generations and backgrounds, Becton conveyed a unifying message.
"The military has a way of doing something for you," said Becton, whose son, Sam, is a York student. "When you're cold and tired and hungry and miserable and scared and somebody offers you help, you don't care where they're from. You don't care what they look like. You don't care what their background is. You're just grateful for that help."
Early in his military career, Becton served in an elite, ceremonial unit: the U.S. Army Honor Guard Company. Among his assignments?
Commanding soldiers outside the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery.
In the Old Guard unit, Becton would serve with Jerry Cashion, both lieutenants at the time. Cashion was from Pulaski, Tennessee, the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan. Becton is black, the son of an Army veteran who fought in segregated units.
They, Becton said, should not have been friends.
"When you talk to people that are different and you put them all together and you make them work together as a team, all those differences that are insignificant seem to go away," Becton told teens.
He got to know the former mayor when Ganet volunteered at the Elmhurst Outpatient Surgery Center, where Becton was the executive director.
"He and I, on the surface, have nothing in common. He's about this tall," said Becton, motioning to his shoulders. "He's Jewish. He was in his 80s when we met. But we were able to cross those generational, cultural, racial, ethnic boundaries to form an unbelievable friendship."
Ganet, an Elmhurst College trustee, was encouraged to speak about his Army service after escorting Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor and author of the memoir "Night," around the school's campus in 1995.
Wiesel, who died in 2016, asked him about his Army service. Ganet didn't like to talk about it, but after some prodding, he told Wiesel that his unit in the 1st Infantry Division liberated the Buchenwald concentration camp.
"Elie Wiesel said, 'Abner, you saved my life. I was supposed to have been executed the next day,'" said Becton, recalling the story of their encounter.
At Wiesel's urging, Ganet would visit schools and civic organizations for the next 15 years, testifying to the "consequences of being indifferent" and "man's inhumanity to man," Becton said.
On Veterans Day, Becton, as his old friend did, shared another lesson from his service.
"It requires giving of yourselves for others and considering other people's needs before you think of your own," he said. "That's really why you should thank a veteran, not just on Veterans Day, but often."