Constable: Two young men died fighting in Vietnam, and their high school class has never forgotten

  • Bob Conti, left, was awarded a Silver Star posthumously for his actions during the Vietnam War. At right, Bill Dabbert of Arlington Heights had barely begun his Army service in Vietnam when he was killed after stepping on a land mine.

    Bob Conti, left, was awarded a Silver Star posthumously for his actions during the Vietnam War. At right, Bill Dabbert of Arlington Heights had barely begun his Army service in Vietnam when he was killed after stepping on a land mine. Courtesy of Conti family, left, and Dabbert family

  • With other friends still on the porch of the Dabbert home in Arlington Heights, Bill Dabbert, right, poses for this photo with buddy Barry Tossi. Five years after his graduation from Arlington High School, Dabbert was killed in Vietnam.

    With other friends still on the porch of the Dabbert home in Arlington Heights, Bill Dabbert, right, poses for this photo with buddy Barry Tossi. Five years after his graduation from Arlington High School, Dabbert was killed in Vietnam. Courtesy of Dabbert family

  • Every year the Arlington High School Class of 1964 presents a wreath at Memorial Park in honor of classmates Bill Dabbert and Bob Conti, who were killed in Vietnam. Last year, Vietnam veteran and classmate Bill Baumgart presented the wreath.

    Every year the Arlington High School Class of 1964 presents a wreath at Memorial Park in honor of classmates Bill Dabbert and Bob Conti, who were killed in Vietnam. Last year, Vietnam veteran and classmate Bill Baumgart presented the wreath. Courtesy of Bob Johnson

  • A standout wrestler and president of the Arlington High School Class of 1964, Bob Conti was awarded a Silver Star posthumously for his actions during the Vietnam War. The Marine braved enemy fire and saved a wounded Marine, but was killed by an explosive.

    A standout wrestler and president of the Arlington High School Class of 1964, Bob Conti was awarded a Silver Star posthumously for his actions during the Vietnam War. The Marine braved enemy fire and saved a wounded Marine, but was killed by an explosive. Courtesy of Conti Family

  • Noting that if he didn't go to Vietnam, someone else would be sent in his place, Bill Dabbert of Arlington Heights had barely begun his Army service in Vietnam when the 23-year-old was killed after stepping on a land mine.

    Noting that if he didn't go to Vietnam, someone else would be sent in his place, Bill Dabbert of Arlington Heights had barely begun his Army service in Vietnam when the 23-year-old was killed after stepping on a land mine. Courtesy of Dabbert family

 
 
Updated 5/24/2020 10:45 AM
This story has been updated to reflect that Louis Conti was a star football player and later head coach at Cornell University.

Burt Constable

The parade is canceled and the annual Memorial Day ceremony has moved online, but the Arlington High School Class of 1964 won't let the holiday pass without remembering the fun they had with classmates Bob Conti and Bill Dabbert, who died in 1969 fighting for our country in Vietnam.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"I think of them both almost every day," says Jim Ewart, 74, of Elk Grove Village. Forced to cancel their annual dinner that draws as many as 50 people and the presenting of a wreath in honor of their fallen classmates, Ewart and John Gleason, 73, of Arlington Heights, are asking the Class of 1964 to post stories about Conti and Dabbert on the private "Arlington High School Arlington Hts. Il. Alumni" page on Facebook.

"He had a lot of friends," Essie Dabbert, 93, says of her son, Bill. She still lives across the street from Memorial Park, usually the site of Memorial Day ceremonies, in the house she and her late husband, Bernie, bought in 1958 and filled with children Bill, Bob, Jack, Nancy and Patricia and a pack of neighborhood friends.

Having raised her family in a house across the street from Memorial Park in Arlington Heights, Essie Dabbert never misses the Memorial Day remembrance that honors fallen soldiers, including her son, Bill Dabbert. Nadine Flint, the sister of Barry Tossi, a classmate and dear friend of Bill, comforts her during last year's ceremony.
Having raised her family in a house across the street from Memorial Park in Arlington Heights, Essie Dabbert never misses the Memorial Day remembrance that honors fallen soldiers, including her son, Bill Dabbert. Nadine Flint, the sister of Barry Tossi, a classmate and dear friend of Bill, comforts her during last year's ceremony. - Courtesy of Bob Johnson

"When we moved in the landscaping was beautiful," she remembers. "We were there one week, and one tree was home plate and they had a baseball field in the yard. In the winter, I had the puck in the freezer for when they played hockey."

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That bustling family scene also played out nearby at the home of Louis and Dorothy Conti, where Bob, who was elected president of his high school class, wrestled in the basement with his older brother, Paul, and enjoyed family gatherings with siblings Bruce, Barbara, Suzanne, and Michael.

"I'm certain he would have been a good dad," Paul Conti, 75, of Glen Ellyn, says of his brother, who was in the class behind him.

An all-conference wrestler and president of his class at Arlington High School, Bob Conti joined the Marines. Every Memorial Day, the Class of 1964 honors classmates Conti and Bill Dabbert, who were killed in Vietnam.
An all-conference wrestler and president of his class at Arlington High School, Bob Conti joined the Marines. Every Memorial Day, the Class of 1964 honors classmates Conti and Bill Dabbert, who were killed in Vietnam. - Courtesy of Conti Family

An all-conference wrestler in high school who went on to wrestle at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, First Lt. Robert F. Conti, 23, was the commanding officer on Nov. 24, 1969, when his Marine company came under heavy fire from the North Vietnamese Army hidden in nearby trees. He maneuvered his men into effective fighting positions and ran back into the gunfire to rescue a wounded comrade. During the ensuing battle, he was mortally wounded by fragments from a mine. He was posthumously awarded a Silver Star for "his heroic and determined efforts" to save a life, and his "courage, superb leadership, and unwavering devotion to duty in the face of grave personal danger."

His body was flown to the Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, before a graveside service at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

"The entire family was there," remembers Paul, who said his father's relatives from Philadelphia and his mom's family members from Utica, New York, also came. "Everybody was upset he was gone, but it was part of the duty. It was one of the few times I saw my dad cry."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
A tightknit Marine family in Arlington Heights, father and Major Gen. Louis Conti and his wife, Dotty, raised children Suzanne and Michael, sitting, and Barbara, Paul, Bruce and Bob, standing from left.
A tightknit Marine family in Arlington Heights, father and Major Gen. Louis Conti and his wife, Dotty, raised children Suzanne and Michael, sitting, and Barbara, Paul, Bruce and Bob, standing from left. - Courtesy of Conti Family

A star player and later head football coach at Cornell University, Louis Conti was a World War II pilot who later flew more than 100 sorties during the Korean War. He rose to the rank of major general, commanded the first Marine Air Reserve Group at the Naval Air Station in Glenview, and is buried beside his son and wife at Arlington National Cemetery.

"We were a Marine Corps family. That's just the way it was," Paul says. "How do I say it? Duty to our country. That was the way we were raised."

Certain to be drafted after his graduation from Western Illinois University, Bill Dabbert left school in his last semester to spend time with his family and friends.

"Bill was everybody in the family's favorite. Even though my parents would never say that, we knew," Bob Dabbert says.

"He was so close to our family. If anybody had any problems, they'd go to Bill to solve them," his mother remembers. "He was just so thoughtful with everybody."

Sister Nancy must have taken this photograph of the Dabbert family in their Arlington Heights home, since she is not shown with siblings, from left, Bob, Bill, Patricia and Jack, and parents Essie and Bernie Dabbert. Bill Dabbert, in uniform, was killed in Vietnam on June 28, 1969.
Sister Nancy must have taken this photograph of the Dabbert family in their Arlington Heights home, since she is not shown with siblings, from left, Bob, Bill, Patricia and Jack, and parents Essie and Bernie Dabbert. Bill Dabbert, in uniform, was killed in Vietnam on June 28, 1969. - Courtesy of Dabbert family

When friends suggested he flee to Canada or find another way to avoid fighting in Vietnam, he refused. "If I don't go, somebody's going to have to go in my place," Bob Dabbert remembers his brother saying.

His friends slept in the living room on the night before his family took him to O'Hare Airport for his return to duty and a trip to Vietnam. "He said, 'Don't worry about me. I'll be back.' But he did not come back," his mom remembers.

At 23 years old, Bill Dabbert, who earned the nickname Duck for his impression of cartoon character Donald Duck, was an Army private with the 25th Infantry Division on June 28, 1969, when a booby trap with two 105 mm rounds exploded and killed him.

"He was only over there for 23 days. We were still getting letters from him after he was killed," Bob Dabbert says. "It changed all of us in different ways. It was tough. Still is today."

Bill Dabbert's grave is in Memory Gardens Cemetery in Arlington Heights, where his dad, who died in 2008, is also buried.

This haunting photograph taken during a 2015 trip to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., shows the reflections of Essie Dabbert and her sons Bob, left, and Jack Dabbert. Her son Bill's name is on that wall because the Arlington Heights native was killed in action in 1969.
This haunting photograph taken during a 2015 trip to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., shows the reflections of Essie Dabbert and her sons Bob, left, and Jack Dabbert. Her son Bill's name is on that wall because the Arlington Heights native was killed in action in 1969. - Courtesy of Dabbert family

The wreath and annual dinner in honor of Dabbert and Conti is always emotional.

"You always have a lump in your throat," Essie Dabbert says.

"I get teary-eyed about it. I just think it's a tremendous honor to him and our family," Paul Conti says.

"We never lose those we love," Ewart says of his classmates from Arlington High School, which closed in 1984. "They are always with us, even after death. Those feelings we experienced when we were with them are always with us. Death only changes the way we relate to them, the way we communicate."

The lives of Conti and Dabbert ended early, but not before they made lasting impacts.

"These guys were nice, really nice," Gleason says, remembering how Conti helped end a hazing ritual for guys who earned a varsity letter playing sports and turned it into a day of volunteer work at the school. "For some reason, there were no stars in our class. We were all kids, the first of the Baby Boomers. We just liked each other."

Members of the Arlington High School Class of 1964 gather every Memorial Day weekend to honor classmates Bob Conti and Bill Dabbert, who were killed in Vietnam in 1969. This year the group is meeting on Facebook.
Members of the Arlington High School Class of 1964 gather every Memorial Day weekend to honor classmates Bob Conti and Bill Dabbert, who were killed in Vietnam in 1969. This year the group is meeting on Facebook. - Courtesy of Bob Johnson

The group, which also has donated $4,341 to seven veteran groups in recent years, hopes to share stories in person, with hugs and laughs and tears at next year's Memorial Day observances.

"This is a wonderful thing they do," Bob Dabbert says. He says his brother and Conti were "special," but notes that they have peers from a half-century ago who also should be remembered on Memorial Day.

"A story like this has been described 58,000 times," Bob Dabbert says, referring to all the U.S. soldiers killed during the Vietnam War. "It changed so many lives."

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