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