Alicia Robinson, a 2014 graduate of Garinger High School in Charlotte, North Carolina, never knew Mike Smith, who graduated 50 years before she did. If she had, Robinson would have liked and respected him. “Pinky,” as his friends at Garinger called him, was a tough cookie, a hard worker and well-liked by all who knew him.
His closest buddy, Marine Vietnam veteran Don Mullis, said Pinky was walking to his own graduation when Don and his family picked him up on the street and took him to the ceremony. After graduating from Garinger in 1964, Smith enlisted in the Marines and served in Vietnam as a member of B Company, 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Marine Division. In May 1967, he was killed in Quang Nam province in northern South Vietnam. Friends from Garinger mourned his loss then—and still do.
Since the summer of 2014, Robinson and Smith have been indelibly linked. In August 2014, the Garinger Education Foundation, headed at the time by 1964 graduate and Air Force veteran Ron Tucker, erected a 6-foot-tall, 3-foot-wide granite monument in front of the school, engraved with the names of the 15 Garinger men then known to have been killed in action during the Vietnam War.
But the foundation, a nonprofit established to support the school’s students, wanted to do more than remember the Vietnam KIA with a monument. It decided to also honor them with scholarships, granted in their memory, to help Garinger graduates headed to college.
When Robinson went to Winston-Salem State University in 2014, she did so with a $2,000 scholarship in honor of Michael “Pinky” Smith and wearing a bracelet that bore his name. Fourteen additional scholarships were awarded to deserving students on their way to college, in memory of the other 14 Garinger men on the Vietnam monument.
Robinson graduated from college in spring 2018 and is teaching elementary school children in Charlotte. So long as she teaches children, Robinson has been told, the memory of Pinky Smith will continue to live in her. Significantly for students from a rough area of town, 11 of the 15 young people awarded scholarships in 2014 graduated from college in 2018—an impressive percentage for any demographic group.
The idea for some kind of memorial had been dwelling in Tucker’s mind for a long time. One of his first cousins, Perry Dean James from Baltimore, was killed while serving with the 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division. And in the early 1970s, he bumped into a school buddy, a Marine suffering the effects of wounds as well as depression. Tucker, stationed in South Korea during his Air Force service, hoped that someday he could do something for the men who served in Vietnam—those who made it back and those who didn’t.
The Garinger Class of 1963, at its 50th reunion in 2013, decided to award scholarships to graduates of the school through a program sponsored by a newly formed alumni organization, the Garinger Education Foundation. Tucker contacted the foundation and was given the job of leading it. He proposed awarding $2,000 annual scholarships (later increased to $2,500) in memory of the 15 men known to have died in Vietnam.
Tucker also broached the idea of a Vietnam memorial on the school grounds, with the names of the KIA engraved on the monument. His proposal, endorsed by the school and foundation, was approved by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, the local public school system. The monument was dedicated on Aug. 8, 2014.
The families of all 15 men were contacted, and 13 families attended the service, along with 500 other people. The 82nd Airborne Division band played at the dedication. The event was filled with emotion for the families, those who worked on the monument and especially those of us who knew and loved our buddies listed on the memorial.
In 2016, after learning of three additional men who needed to be added to the memorial, the Garinger foundation had those names engraved on the monument. A dedication for them was held on May 22, 2016. Scholarships were awarded in memory of those men as well.
Besides the scholarships for all 18 Garinger men whose names grace the memorial, the foundation awards about 50 additional scholarships (some sponsored by other institutions) each year to graduates headed mainly to community colleges in the area. The top 18 graduating seniors each receive a certificate and bracelet in memory of a Vietnam KIA.
The 18 men whose names have been engraved on the Garinger Vietnam memorial are: Michael Ray Smith, Archie Monroe Carlyle, Daryl Lee Davis, James Randall Williams, Fred Melvin Wrenn, Donald Ray Chamblin Jr., Ronald Devone Griffin, William Samuel Irby, Terry Alan Hodges, George Michael Price, Robert Merrill Campbell, Glenn Richard Cook, Robert Lane Fallows, Ansel Wendell Morse, Johnny Saxon, William Allen Johnson, Royd Steve Kerly Jr. and Robert Harold Petit.
On the back of the monument is the fourth verse of English poet Laurence Binyon’s famous 1914 poem, “For the Fallen”:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
Those of us who were privileged to know the Garinger men and worked on this project visit it with emotion and honor on a frequent basis.
Larry Walker, an active duty Marine 1964-68, served with Marine All Weather Fighter Squadron 235, part of the 1st Marine Air Wing, III Marine Amphibious Force, at Da Nang in 1966. He was a corporal when released from active duty.
Do you have reflections on the war, you would like to share? Email your idea or article to [email protected], subject line: Reflections
This feature originally appeared in the April 2020 issue of Vietnam magazine. To subscribe, click here.