- Associated Press - Saturday, June 14, 2014

AUSTIN, Pa. (AP) - In May of 2002, Capt. Vinnie McManus of the Long Beach (N.Y.) Fire Department promised a class of Austin kindergarten students that he would return for their high school graduation to thank them for sending firefighters a hand-printed American flag following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the country.

On Friday, McManus lived up to his promise and returned to the small school in rural Pennsylvania to serve as guest speaker for the Class of 2014 graduation ceremonies. The fire department’s visit had been anticipated by students for years as they had kept in touch with the firefighters throughout their school career.

During his address to the small graduating class of 23 seniors, McManus outlined what life had been like for his volunteer fire department following the terrorists’ attacks on the World Trade Center, and how a package from the Austin kindergartners changed their lives.

A few months after the attack, the tragedy was taking its toll on the men with Ladder Co. 62 in Long Beach as they had dealt firsthand with the Ground Zero rescue efforts. In addition, the firefighters with the company had lost two ex-members and many, many friends and instructors in the attack.

McManus said the shock the firefighters had experienced was replaced with grief and depression as they attended funerals and memorial services for their friends. Their heartache was lessened when they received a package from the Austin kindergartners at the firehouse. Inside, the firefighters found an American flag made from the handprints of the 22 kindergartners in Karen Crosby’s class. As they looked at the flag containing little red and blue hand prints representing stars and stripes, the firefighters all began to cry, he said.

“It changed us. It wiped away some of the sorrow, it gave us hope and allowed us to feel a certain amount of pride in what was otherwise a failed mission,” McManus recalled. “We will never forget what you did for us.”

In his advice to the graduates, McManus told the youths to continue giving back to the community and country, much as they had done all those years ago.

“What sets you apart . and is your greatest asset going forward, are the things I know you have here in Austin - family, faith, community, and as demonstrated by your wonderful gift 13 years ago, a love of country,” he said.

The compassion expressed in McManus’ speech was also displayed earlier in the day when he met several seniors who were waiting for him to arrive at the school with his wife Mary Kay.

“I can’t believe I’m back, thank you for inviting me,” McManus told the seniors and Crosby. He admitted that he and the other firefighters in his company often thought of the Austin students over the years.

“It was a no-brainer to come back, I had to be here,” McManus said, noting several other firefighters had wanted to attend the graduation, but were unable to.

Crosby said that of the 22 kindergartners who sent the original flag, 15 are still with the class. She said the class now has 23 seniors with replacements, and all them wanted to make a new “hand print” flag for McManus to take back with him. They were helped with the project this time by art teacher Michele Rodich.

Two of the seniors who were anxious to see McManus were Logan Plant and Michael Schaeffer, who had been pictured with him during his visit 12 years ago. Both remembered having their picture taken with the fireman because they hung out with him during the day and thought he was “pretty cool.”

Both also remember details of the first visit McManus and five other firefighters made at the school back in 2002, as well as writing the Ladder Company letters throughout the years. The young men said they have also been influenced to enter public service someday, likely because of their exposure to the heroic firefighters.

Plant said he would like to become a lineman one day, as well as continue to serve as a volunteer firefighters alongside several of his family members.

Schaeffer said he plans to attend college and hopes to eventually become a state police officer.

“I took a lot from their visit, they were nice and respectful and that’s how I am now,” Schaeffer said of the firefighters.

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Online:

http://bit.ly/1kKe5gt

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Information from: The Bradford Era, http://www.bradfordera.com

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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