SPRING HILL — Students clapped and cheered as William R. Lancaster took slow, deliberate steps down a Westside Elementary hall Thursday.
A navy blue USS Yorktown ball cap perched high on his head, the 87-year-old smiled from behind dark glasses as he walked through double doors and onto the sun-drenched blacktop of the school's basketball courts. The rest of West- side's 570 students hooted and waved American flags as The Ballad of the Green Berets came over the public address system.
Lancaster, of Spring Hill, wasn't a Green Beret. He was a Navy man who spent much of World War II in the bowels of a ship. The kids who cheered him Thursday morning didn't know the details of his service, though. They just knew him as a guest of a honor.
Lancaster was one of 18 current and former servicemen and servicewomen who attended Westside's second annual veterans ceremony. Representing most of the major modern conflicts from World II to the Second Gulf War, the veterans sat in chairs at the edge of the pavement as red, white and blue balloons bobbed above their heads.
Lancaster doesn't have a relative at the school. He and his wife of 62 years, Lucy, are members of Spring Hill Calvary Church of the Nazarene, which has adopted Westside as one of its causes. The type of guy who raises an American flag in his front yard and salutes it every morning, he accepted the invitation to attend.
As an electrician, Lancaster spent much of the time below decks. He wears hearing aids, a result of the blasting guns.
"You did what you could and were told," he said. "I wasn't anything special."
He was to Westside's students.
He snapped a salute when members of Central High School's JROTC presented the colors. He smiled when the fourth- and fifth-grade class sang a song: You are patriots and heroes who answered the call. He oohed and ahhed along with the kids when Central cadets spun and tossed their rifles. He was among the first to his feet during God Bless the U.S.A.
Students handed each veteran a carnation as assistant principal Joyce Lewis called their names and announced their branch of the military. At the end of the ceremony, as the younger ones started to fidget, Lewis asked the students to remember why they would be enjoying a three-day weekend. Then it was back to class.
The Lancasters made their way down the same hallway, empty this time, revealing American flags made of construction paper tacked to the walls.
"That was quite a production," Lucy said, her hand on her husband's arm.
"Yes," he said, clutching his white carnation, "it was."
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.