The high school experience brings back many childhood memories. If you would permit me a short story, I grew up in Alexandria, Virginia and attended Catholic grade school and Bishop Ireton High School until tenth grade. I loved Bishop Ireton High School, the priests, fellow students, and sports. However Bishop Ireton had one major problem and that was the fact that it was an all-boys school. When you are sixteen years old, that is a major problem. I begged my parents to allow me to attend the local public school. I told my parents that if they allowed me to transfer that I would be a top student because we always felt that the Catholic school system was far superior academically to the public schools. I even told them that because the public school was so “easy” that I guaranteed them straight A’s. My parents finally relented and I found myself in September, 1968 entering Francis C. Hammond High School for my junior year. 

Even though I had talked a mean game with my parents, I was a little apprehensive about how well things would really go. I had never been in a public school. The second or third day of class, the entire school was called into an assembly. I questioned the boy who had a locker next to me on the purpose of the all-school assembly. He told me that the school called an assembly each year at the start of the school year to “tell them the name of their school.” I thought “Wow, I’ve hit the jackpot. This must be the right school because these folks are SO dumb- they have to have an assembly to explain the name of the school.” I knew the name was Francis C. Hammond and they were the Admirals. 

When I walked into the gym I noticed a U.S. Marine Corps color guard and we were being greeted by a Marine four star General. I had seen a lot of military officers but never a four star General up close. I asked a fellow student why such a high ranking officer would come to speak to a bunch of high school students, he said that this was the Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps and he came each year to tell the Francis C. Hammond story. The Commandant explained that Francis Hammond grew up in Alexandria and had attended St. John’s High School and George Washington High School. Francis was a good Catholic boy (there weren’t a lot of Catholics in Northern Virginia in the 1950’s). Francis dreamed of becoming a pharmacist and working in his uncle’s pharmacy in Alexandria after high school. Unfortunately, our country was at war in Korea in the early 1950’s and Francis joined the Navy to serve his country. 

Francis became a corpsman and was assigned to Charlie Company. One night, Charlie Company, which consisted of 250 Marines and two Navy corpsmen, was overrun by several thousand Chinese communists. Francis was wounded and was ordered to the rear by his commanding officer. He refused to leave and continued to crawl through the mud, blood, and ice of that Korean battlefield until he was wounded a second time. Again he refused to leave and continued to comfort and save bleeding and dying Marines. I wonder when Francis refused to leave the battlefield if he thought of his young wife back in Alexandria who was 7 months pregnant with his first child. I wonder if he thought of the fact that he had just fourteen days left before he would be rotated back to the States. I wonder if he was scared, perhaps he was thinking of an old Marine Corps saying that next to God, a grunt’s best friend is the corpsman. For several more hours Francis refused to leave his position and continued to save fellow Marines until a Chinese mortar round landed next to him, killing him. The Marines of Charlie Company picked up the remains of Francis, placing them in a poncho for their return home. Francis’s deeds that night would never be forgotten by the men of Charlie Company. 

In this day and age we use the term hero all too often. I was recently at the MCI Center with my son attending an ice hockey game. You could see and hear from the fans the adulation and hero worship. I almost felt that I was in old Rome in the coliseum. These players are great athletes but they are not heroes. Francis C. Hammond was a hero. 

One of the great traditions at Seton High School is visiting the cemetery across from All Saints’ Catholic Church and praying for the souls on All Souls Day. One of the spiritual works of mercy is praying for the souls that have died. If any of you ever have the opportunity to visit Arlington National Cemetery and walk amongst real heroes- it might be a nice thing to kneel by the grave of one of our boys and thank them for paying the ultimate price for our freedom, because freedom is not free. If you happen to be in Arlington National Cemetery and walk into Section 33 you will see a white tombstone that looks like the thousands of other tombstones but with a slight wording difference. The tombstone will say Francis C. Hammond, age 21, Korea, Congressional Medal of Honor. Francis C. Hammond was an American hero. 

We too, young athletes of Seton, have heroes. When you walk into the Seton chapel to visit our Lord, before you open the door turn to the left and look up on the wall – you will see another hero: Colonel Michael Pennefather. The thought occurred to me that this would be the 1ast graduating class that would remember Col. P. For those of you who did not know Col. P. he was a much beloved coach, teacher, and friend who was diagnosed in March of 1998 with terminal cancer. Can I ask you a question, if a medical doctor told you that you had a very short time to live-81 days to be exact, what would you do? How would you react? Col. P. reacted the same way Francis C. Hammond reacted. He stayed at his position. Col. P. continued to teach, counsel, motivate, and pray with, our student body until the very end. 

I wanted to ask Col P. some questions and was fortunate enough to be able to spend some time with him before he died. I wanted to know what motivated him to turn down a lucrative job to work for a very small salary at Seton. Col P. looked at me and told me his four years at Seton were the best years of his life. I also wanted to ask him how he was able to produce such a great bunch of seven children. I was not asking about their athletic abilities, even though it was extremely impressive that five of his seven children obtained Division I college basketball scholarships. Something much more impressive was the fact that seven children all loved and served our Catholic faith. Col. P. told me that all the credit belonged to Mrs. P. and that she taught them to pray and that he taught them to play. I was not quite buying that one completely, so Col. P. gave me three pieces of advice: 1). Turn of the electronic gadgets in your home. Col. P. said that families are so inundated with noise i.e. TV, stereos, and computers, that they do not have time to get to know one another and communicate. 2). The importance of daily family prayer, particularly the family rosary. Col. P. remarked that the entire Pennefather family would say the rosary even if it were late at night when the last child returned from a practice. The family that prays together stays together. 3). Col. P. said to love the Catholic Church, don’t question her teachings, and to stay close to the sacraments, particularly the Holy Eucharist. 

Recently, when I attended the Delaney Athletic Conference championship game, something seemed very weird. Our girls’ team had never lost a Delaney Conference championship in my six years following the team. We controlled the championship game against Word of Life from the opening start until two minutes and 40 seconds left in the game. We let those stinkers come from behind and beat us. Seton High School may lose an occasional game, but we don’t lose Delaney Conference championships. It also seemed very strange that our boys were not playing for a championship this year. I stayed up until 3:30 am going over in my head all the plays that occurred, trying to rethink what went wrong in the defeat. I almost called my good friend and fellow basketball nut Pete Grimberg to get his thoughts, but thought Mrs.Grimberg may not appreciate a phone call at 3:30 am. Finally, I though this is crazy, why is this so important to me? It is only a basketball game that my daughter played in. Why did I want a victory so badly? 

The thought occurred to me that it was important because this was Col. P.’s last class that had played for him. That it would have been a way of honoring this last Col. P.-coached team with a victory. It was at this time that I did not receive a locution or apparition, but felt Col P.’s presence state “Frank, this was not the big game”. I responded Col. P., this was the Delaney Conference championship game, and it could not get any bigger than that. And then it dawned on me, that what Col P. was trying to say was that there is a much bigger championship that we cannot afford to lose. The opponent is much tougher than anyone in the Delaney Conference, much tougher than DeMatha or O’Connell. It is the championship for our Eternal Salvation, the battle for our souls. We must use our great Seton athletic training and competitive spirit to refuse to lose in the spiritual battle. Please remember young athletes what your teachers and coaches have taught you, we need to all be standing on the championship platform which is heaven with our Lord and Blessed Mother. 

I would like to now present a little award to Seton coaches. Right before Col. P. died, he asked me to coach the Seton High School summer league team. I told Col P. that I was unsure of myself coaching at the high school level. Col. P. said, “Frank, this is girl’s high school summer league basketball, it’s not an NBA team. He than preceded to go over the names of 21 girls that he thought would be candidates to play during the summer. He would pause after each name that he wrote down and give me some insight about what a special person each child was. I had the feeling that even though Col P. wrote down 21 names, he could have been talking about any of the 350 students here at Seton. I would like to give you a plaque that has the 21 names written in Col. P.’s handwriting that he gave me that day. I kept everything that Col. P. gave me; the marketing guy in me said these could be second-class relics one day. If you coaches are having a bad day, maybe after a tough defeat, maybe your down on a player, or tempted to give up on a kid, I ask that you look at this plaque and remember how Col. P. did not leave his position even up until the very end. Thank you for listening to me. God Bless all of you.

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