After passing by the Immaculate Conception School flagpole numerous times and seeing the name “John Smith” displayed on a memorial, Diana Oravec set out to discover just who that person was. In doing so, the school principal gained a history lesson with some local flavor.
She found that Smith was one of Immaculate Conception’s own, having graduated 50 years ago from the Catholic school in Ithaca. Smith was killed 40 years ago last month in the line of duty, and so to honor his memory, Oravec arranged a special remembrance on Flag Day.
The event took place June 14 and involved the school, Smith’s family and the community at large. A morning flag-raising ceremony was held by the school flagpole on Plain Street, followed by an early afternoon program during which the flag was lowered. The latter portion included a brass quartet playing patriotic music, an honor guard from the Dryden American Legion and a sing-a-long of patriotic songs. In addition, a display board was erected featuring Smith in an Immaculate Conception class picture as well as various newspaper articles about him.
“The weather was perfect. It turned out to be a very nice celebration. Family members were very appreciative,” said Oravec, who noted that during her research she learned that a cousin of Smith’s, Rita Nicholas, serves as a volunteer in Immaculate Conception’s library and distant cousins currently attend the school as well.
Smith served as a cryptologist technician first class in the United States Navy. He was a 23-year-old sailor on the USS Liberty, a U.S. Navy signals intelligence ship, when it was attacked by Israeli forces on June 8, 1967, during the Six-Day War between Israel and the Arab states of Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and Syria. The incident took place in international waters near Egypt. Smith and 33 other servicemen were killed; many more were injured.
Oravec said her effort resulted in deeper knowledge about the Six-Day War, remarking that she “didn’t know it was such a controversial attack.” Both the Israeli and American governments conducted multiple inquiries into the USS Liberty incident, and concluded publicly that Israeli forces had not known they were assaulting a U.S. ship. Yet the validity of that claim continues to be disputed, particularly by survivors of the attack.
Oravec said basic information about John Smith was presented to Immaculate Conception’s younger grades — “that he grew up in Ithaca, went to Immaculate Conception and became a sailor who was unfortunately killed in the line of duty.” But she said that middle-school classes went into greater detail about the USS Liberty “and the controversy that surrounds it, about what happened that day, the reasons why we might have been attacked.”
She acknowledged that explaining war to Catholic-school students can be tricky.
“The kids say they’re being taught ‘thou shall not kill,’ and they always bring up that question,” she said. “We try to incorporate that it’s a ‘just war’ if they have to kill someone to defend themselves and defend others.”
Oravec also organized a Flag Day last year, her first as Immaculate Conception’s principal. This was a tradition of hers while serving as principal of the former St. Patrick School in Seneca Falls as well.
“It’s a neat experience for the kids. It shows them that patriotism is important,” she said.