It was my pleasure to teach at the El Toro Marine School in the early 1980s. Several years ago, I heard that the school was about to be demolished, since the former El Toro Marine Corps Airbase was being transformed into the Great Park. So, I drove out there for a trip down memory lane and a chance to say good-bye to that little elementary school.
In walking through former classrooms, I saw many things that took me back 30 years — an old-fashioned school clock, a cafeteria table turned on its end, and a slightly faded Marine Corps flag. The Marine flag brought back strong feelings and vivid memories about the patriotic purpose of the El Toro Airbase and the men and women who served our country.
The school was an integral part of the military community, providing the families with a positive and protective learning environment for their children. El Toro Marine School was unique among schools in the Irvine Unified School District. The children might not have been as fortunate as many in the middle of town, but they made up for it with their enthusiasm and strong desire to learn. Moreover, while some in the School District referred to them disparagingly as “base kids,” these children benefited from living at El Toro — in a military community that was a model of racial, ethnic and cultural diversity that was simply not yet present elsewhere in Irvine.
As school teachers and staff, we worked with these families for the betterment of their children, and we had great respect for them and the many sacrifices they made — in peacetime and in wartime. Of course, some families made the ultimate sacrifice — losing a mom or a dad in combat.
The relationship we had with the children and their mothers and fathers is a big part of the reason for my enthusiastic support for the idea of establishing a Veterans Memorial Park and Cemetery at the Great Park — formerly the home of the Airbase and the El Toro Marine School. No site could be more fitting and appropriate as a permanent resting place for Southern California veterans, and as a place where we could honor these special patriots and their service to our country.
Whenever I hear talk of “finding another place” — outside of Irvine — for the Veterans Cemetery, it makes me sad…and angry. When I heard IUSD Board member, Michael Parham, say a while back that putting the Veterans Cemetery at the Great Park was a “deal breaker” because it was going to be so close to the site IUSD selected for the new Portola High School, I really got angry. Apparently, Mr. Parham believes it is acceptable to have toxic contamination and a mega-jail near the new high school, but not veterans who served our country.
What is patriotism? For us, I think it is saying thank you by honoring the men and women and families whose military service earned them all the right to rest in peace at a beautiful Veterans Cemetery at the Great Park.