Phoenixville, Pa., alumni honor classmate who died in Vietnam
By KATHY BOCCELLA | The Philadelphia Inquirer | Published: May 9, 2019
(Tribune News Service) — With the 50th anniversary of John Polefka’s combat death in a Vietnam province just west of Saigon approaching, it seemed the number of people who still remembered the lanky Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, youth with a nice smile and good sense of humor had dwindled to only a handful.
One of the few who never forgot him is Kirsten Paxson, Polefka’s 45-year-old niece, who’s always considered the uncle she never knew a “guardian angel” and held onto all the letters he sent home from Vietnam.
So Paxson was both surprised and thrilled to learn that Class of 1968 alums from Phoenixville Area High School had established a John A. Polefka Memorial Scholarship Fund to aid students joining the military or planning to study criminal justice.
“I was like, ‘Wow, that’s pretty remarkable’ — I was floored,” said Paxson, the daughter of Polefka’s late sister, his only sibling, upon learning of the scholarship fund. Now in its second year, the fund has raised nearly $18,000 from donors who attended school with Polefka in the Chester County river town during the 1950s and ‘60s.
Chas Kopp, the 1968 Phoenixville grad who spearheaded the effort, said alumni going into their 50th reunion in 2018 thought it was a great idea to honor their classmate — even though Polefka had dropped out of school and never earned his diploma — and the sacrifices that young people from their generation made in Southeast Asia.
The scholarship fund raised $13,000 in its first year and aided or recognized six 2018 graduating seniors, including two $2,000 scholarships to students planning to study criminal justice, a pledge of $500 stipends to three who enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, and a special award to grad Caroline Turner, headed to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.
Kopp said the fund has brought in another $4,000 to $5,000 this year and the committee plans a second round of awards later this month, following an appreciation luncheon held last week for all seniors enlisting in the military. He said Polefka was the "only guy … killed in Vietnam that was from our class.”
Officials don’t know exactly how many Phoenixville young men were killed during U.S. fighting in Vietnam during the 1960s and early 1970s, but say six residents are listed on the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington. It’s believed as many as 13 members of the high school’s 335-student Class of 1968 served in the Asian conflict.
Gerri Wegrzynowicz — Polefka’s aunt who lives upstate in Warrior Run, Pa., and who remembers him well from a summer he spent with her and her five children — recalls that neither she nor Polefka’s mom wanted him to enlist in the Army or to leave for Vietnam in 1968, a couple of years after he’d left school. “I was a little bit upset about that at that time,” she said.
Polefka’s unit — part of the 1st Battalion of the Army’s 5th Cavalry Regiment — was attacked near Binh Long and he was killed Aug. 31, 1969. The Chester County corporal was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart.
“He was in Vietnam a very short time when he was killed,” said Wegrzynowicz, recalling details such as his open casket and the military escort who brought his body home. “I still feel sad occasionally thinking about them — he was so young, all those young men …”
Paxson said her mother, Charmaine, who was two years ahead of Polefka in Phoenixville schools, was close to her brother and spoke of him frequently when she was growing up — so much so that Paxson gave her daughter the middle name “Arn,” the same as his. Paxson’s twin brother is named “John” after his late uncle.
“What my mom told me is he was funny, he was quiet, he was a prankster,” said Paxson, a high school English teacher in Berks County. And he was always something of a presence — someone who Paxson felt had somehow helped her survive a car crash in which she suffered a broken neck around the time of her mother’s 2005 death from pancreatic cancer.
“He’s always been my guardian angel, so it seemed right that he could be that for somebody else,” Paxson said of the scholarships. “My mom would have been so tickled.”
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