By EVAN GRANT
It had been 20 years since Trey Prather left Shreveport for the last time, but a large group continually streamed by the granite wall looking for him. If they couldn't find the former Woodlawn quarterback, Donnis "O.B." O'Bryan would point them in the right direction.
There he was on Panel 34-E, Line 24, H.L. Prather III.
"It just amazed me," said O'Bryan, the president of Chapter 94 of the Vietnam Veterans of America. "There were so many high school kids and young people who just wanted to come see Trey Prather's name. There was a table set up with a whole display full of newspaper clippings. But what really got me was the number of young kids."
That was in the summer of 1988 when the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Moving Wall came to Bossier City for a week. For a week, Shreveport and Bossier wept over their favorite sons who had been killed in some jungle far away. For a week, they stood in the glaring sun and asked "Where's Trey?"
Not that they've ever been able to forget Prather. From the generation of the Vietnam War to the generation of glasnost, nobody has forgotten. Prather and three other former Woodlawn students -- Edward Cox Jr., Glenn Ogburn, and Harold O'Neal -- who were also killed in Vietnam, have been memorialized since 1969 in an annual sunrise service at the school the first Friday in May. The ceremony takes place today at 7:25 a.m.
So emotional is the sunrise service that people from former students to LSU basketball coach Dale Brown call it one of the most moving experiences they've ever witnessed.
"It was so different," said Betsy Blankenship, then a sophomore in the Woodlawn choir and now a teacher at the school, of the first service. "It was very impressive. To me it hit home because I had a brother who might have had to go to Vietnam. It didn't end up that way, but that was all I thought about.
"To this day, I don't know of anyone who walks away from it with a dry eye. I still don't. And I've seen it lots of times."
Said Brown: "It was just the sincerity of it all. Nobody has anything to gain from that. Yet people still reach out to others to soothe their pain."
The pain has diminished somewhat. Time will do that. Some of the involved parties, like Prather's parents, have since passed away. Others, like O'Neal's parents, have moved. But when the memories come forward so does the pain.
For most of the South Shreveport community that had rallied around Woodlawn since it opened in 1960, Prather had been the idol. He preceded Terry Bradshaw and Joe Ferguson. He took what Woodlawn's first quarterback, Billy Laird, had started and refined it to an art, throwing for 1,238 yards in 1964 and being named the All-State quarterback.
He led Woodlawn to the playoffs in 1964 with a 10-1 season. After a loss to Baton Rouge High in the playoffs, Prather stood in the middle of the field in a downpour crying for what seemed like hours to the assembled masses. Three days later he was on the basketball court for the start of practice. When that ended, he moved on to the baseball field.
But it was on the football field where Prather ruled with an iron fist and a bolt of lightning for an arm.
"He was aggressive, that's why he was such a great leader," said Lee Hedges, who coached Prather at Woodlawn and served as a pallbearer in his funeral. "He wanted to play defense, too, and we wouldn't let him. It was the same with Terry (Bradshaw). They were both so aggressive and so willing to work hard.
"I'm sure that's what made him (Prather) a good Marine. But it's just hard for me to think about him -- or any of those kids -- in any other environment than how we saw them at school. To think about his death, well, it was just a hearbreaker for me. My mind just won't let me remember any particulars."
Before the tragedy, Prather was headed for LSU. All of Woodlawn's legions followed him south with loving eyes.
But at LSU, North Louisiana's hero met South Louisiana's hero. Prather was shelved. Despite leading the freshman team to an unbeaten season, he was still stuck in a logjam with three other quarterbacks behind Crowley's Nelson Stokely.
Even though Stokely had undergone knee surgery just six months before and missed all of spring practice, Prather, a sophomore, seemed to play only in games that were hopeless. He was just eight of 22 for 103 yards and three interceptions.
So, moved by his fall of discontent, he enlisted in the Marine Corps after LSU's 1966 football season. A year later, he was in Vietnam. Two months later, he was dead, the victim of a land mine.
He had been on patrol near a village called Quang Nam when he stepped on the mine. He was transported to Da Nang and his leg was amputated. That was enough of a shock to the community. Four days later he died. It took the news two days to reach Shreveport.
So ended a legend.
But the Woodlawn community, which he and a small group of crew cut boys with big smiles and broad shoulders had united, wouldn't let him die with the funeral. The 1969 Student Council donated a plain stone monument that sits near the flagpole in the school's quadrangle.
Each year, they have come to rededicate it to the group of four.
|Woodlawn's memorial monument |
(courtesy of Patti Garrett for the
Woodlawn Knights Alumni page on Facebook)
Each year, they pledge to remember.
"It means a lot to us that their spirit never dies," said Woodlawn Principal Chris Strother, who graduated from the school in 1963. "I knew Trey because everybody knew Trey and because he was such a school leader. It was just impossible to not know Trey and not know what he was capable of. But he was only the most well-known of that group. Every one of them was important to this community."
So important that Class of 1969 President Jerry Harper came to Principal J.W. Cook with the idea to purchase the samll stone monument toward the end of the 1969 school year. That was the birth of the service.
Prather had already been well-eulogized to an overflow crowd at First Presbyterian Church in January of 1968. His pallbearers had included Hedges and other Woodlawn coaches Lowell Morrison and A.L. Williams. But within a year of Prather's funeral, O'Neal and Cox had both been killed. Ogburn had died in July, 1967.
"It was such a traumatic thing," said Cook. "None of the students in 1969 had gone to school with that group, but everybody knew the names."
So, from the death of a legend came the birth of a tradition.
The service has changed little since the first dedication on May 14, 1969. Today, as always, it will begin with a drum roll and the choir will sing America. It will close with the laying of a wreath and roses at the monument, the roll call of the four names, taps and closing remarks by Strother. Only once has there been a speaker, when O'Neal's family donated his service flag to be used in the ceremony. The same flag has flown above the service ever since.
Though the service is held before school and is not mandatory, attendance has always been strong. And while the monunment would be a prime target for vandals, it has never been bothered. Even earlier this year when somebody took spray paint to the inside of the quadrangle, they left the monument alone.
"This is Woodlawn at its best," Strother said. "It doesn't matter if you are black or white or rich or poor. We are all a part of this. This is just people doing what is just and right."
Last fall, Cook failed to see Woodlawn play football for the first time in 334 games, but he said nothing would keep him from his 22nd straight memorial service today.
"I've seen the changing of the guard at Arlington National Cemetery and I've seen the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, but to see a group of 16- and 17-year-old kids put on a service like this ... well, it's something you won't ever forget."
At Woodlawn, they never have.