GARDNER – Some may remember Gardner-born Robert Wright as the kid who wore a tuxedo and top hat while carrying a cake and unicylcing through the Grundy County Corn Festival parade as a promotion for Kenneth Clark Bakery.
That’s how sibling Dave Wright of Braceville likes to remember his big brother, “Bobby.”
“He was a very pleasant, fun person to be around,” Dave Wright remembered. “He was always just a happy, happy guy.”
Robert is forever frozen in Dave’s memory as a great big brother – always letting him tag along on dates with his sweetheart, Janice, and never getting angry when Dave played with his beloved model trains.
Shortly after graduating from Gardner South Wilmington High School in 1966, Robert was drafted to serve in the Vietnam War. Less than a year later, the Wright family received a telegram notifying them that 20-year-old Robert had been killed in combat.
“I remember it clearly when the military people showed up to tell us,” said Dave Wright, who was 11 when his brother died. “That was a dark day.”
Robert Wright was one of five GSW high school grads who died while serving in Vietnam. The Grundy County Board will be recognizing those five and their living relatives in a small ceremony to be held during Tuesday’s County Board meeting.
“It’s kind of unique, because Gardner is the smallest high school in the county, but it had the biggest losses in Vietnam,” County Board member Dick Joyce said.
A GSW graduate himself, Joyce helped organize the ceremony in honor of his classmates, including Dwight native David Jacobsgaard, who Joyce remembers as his little league baseball coach.
Jacobsgaard’s brother, Harold, and sister, Lynn Gassman, most remember their brother’s intelligence and commitment to helping others. He carried that compassion with him to Vietnam where he started a school for Vietnamese children.
“Quiet, passive, reserved, intelligent, always caring about others. ... David was the best of the lot,” said Harold Jacobsgaard, of Shorewood.
Just married and recently graduated from the University of Illinois, Jacobsgaard was shipped off to war as a helicopter pilot in the U.S. Marine Corps. His helicopter was shot down during a rescue mission in 1969. He was 25.
“It was very tough on our parents,” said Lynn Gassman, of Dwight. “That’s not the way it’s supposed to happen, with your kids going first.”
Morris resident Mary Jensen was only 4 when her older brother – South Wilmington native Michael Finn – was killed, but said she remembers the toll it took on her parents.
“They always attended any services or memorials or anything that was held for Vietnam vets,” Jensen said. “But I think the grief of their loss outweighed their pride.”
For several years after Michael’s death, Jensen said the family would get phone calls and visits from Michael’s childhood friends who never forgot about him.
“He was well-liked by everybody,” she said. “Just an all-around, all-American wonderful kid. You wonder what life would have been like if he hadn’t died.”
Jensen said she and her daughter will be attending Tuesday’s ceremony.
U.S. Marine veteran Benjamin Doman, graduate of GSW high school class of 1967, and U.S. Army veteran Kurt Int-Hout, graduate of the class of 1970, also were killed during Vietnam combat. They too will be honored at Tuesday’s ceremony.
“We take our lives so for granted and the freedoms that we have,” Jensen said. “We are really indebted to those who fought, not always by choice, and died for our freedom.”
IF YOU GO
What: Grundy County Board memorial for fallen Vietnam servicemen from Gardener South Wilmington High School
Who: Benjamin Doman, Kurt Int-Hout, Michael Finn, David Jacobsgaard and Robert Wright and being honored
When: 6 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Grundy County Administration Building, 1320 Union St., Morris
• This article has been updated to reflect an error. The original version inaccurately reported where Robert Wright was born. He was born in Gardner.