You’ll remember Edmund L. Decker.
You’ll know what a mischievous clown this Northeast High School graduate was before he became the somber warrior seen behind shadowed eyes.
Until now, this Kansas City boy lay forgotten among the more than 10,000 graves and markers in the Normandy American Cemetery, killed in the D-Day invasion 71 years ago.
But Audrey Calovich, 17, and her Notre Dame de Sion history teacher Lisa Lauck are onto his story.
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Along the way, others have already cried to hear his story, like Roberta Kipper did.
Kipper, a meticulous and thorough caretaker of Northeast High School’s alumni room, didn’t know of Decker’s service, or his sacrifice. For some reason no one had ever documented it in the school’s records.
Calovich and Lauck came to Kipper, retracing the young Decker’s steps, piecing together the life story they will take with them to the beaches of Normandy, France, later this month.
The Sion team has a mission, as one of 15 pairs of teachers and students to win research scholarships with the Normandy Institute. The mission: to recover one of the lost stories of D-Day — to make Ed Decker’s life and breath as real as their own.
When they ascended the old curving steps to Northeast’s front doors earlier this spring, they already had discovered the picture of a weary Decker in the cockpit of his P-47 fighter plane.
That 24-year-old man — photographed maybe just days before he was shot down June 8, 1944, while strafing a German convoy near Bayeux, France — “looks troubled,” Lauck said.
His eyes are cast down, not at the camera. His arm in his bomber jacket drapes over the lip of the cockpit, his hand dangling over the score of German crosses stamped on his plane, marking his kills. He would earn numerous decorations, including a Distinguished Flying Cross and a Purple Heart.
But look at him in the 1938 “Noreaster” high school yearbook. His senior year.
Eyes right at you. Hair slicked. A hint of a smile, almost coy. Coat and tie.
The pages within show his prankish humor. In his senior “will,” he wrote that he leaves his “ability to get into trouble.”
His classmates quipped on another page that the book that best matched his interests would be “What Women Like.”
What they said you’d never see from Decker: “wearing the same clothes twice.”
Kipper said the alumni association will put Decker’s name on the school’s memorial plaque, where it had belonged all along, and that his name will be etched among others listed as “Northeast Notables.”
That is when they all cried.
Kipper placed in Calovich’s hands an old spirit button from the school’s collection: Northeast Vikings: We don’t mess around.
And a graduation medal on a ribbon.
Take them with you, Kipper told her, and place them on Ed Decker’s grave.
Arrayed white crosses mark 9,387 graves spread over 172.5 rolling acres at the Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, France.
Another 1,557 names are inscribed on the Walls of the Missing.
But the number whose stories were known to history: maybe fewer than 500.
That’s what the superintendent of the cemetery told National History Day Executive Director Cathy Gorn as she stood on its grounds five years ago.
More than ever, she knew what work should come from the future fellows of the then-budding Normandy Institute.
Washington, D.C., real estate developer and philanthropist Albert Small triggered the idea. He wanted to shake up young people to the power of history.
“He wanted to put them on the beaches,” Gorn said, and see the French shores and countryside where so many died.
But Gorn and the National History Day organization wanted to go further and deploy students and teachers as researchers. Turn them into rich storytellers.
“You can say X-number of people died here, but that doesn’t really register with kids,” Gorn said. “How do you truly understand?”
Young Ed Decker grew up in Kansas City.
He was raised by grandparents, his mother having died young. His father was seemingly “out of the picture,” Calovich said.
The house still stands a couple blocks off of Independence Avenue and Benton Boulevard. Certainly that’s its original limestone foundation and porch columns, with white wood clapboard siding and attic bedrooms now built on.
Kipper brought her Northeast alumni group colleague Velma Showalter, class of ’44, to meet with Calovich and Lauck, to give them a taste of the Northeast neighborhood’s wartime flavor.
They looked over a 1941 photo of the families of servicemen gathered outside a community shop on St. John Avenue. They couldn’t find mention of Decker’s grandparents, but you could see the weight of the rising war on the neighborhood.
Decker studied at Park University and worked as a mail clerk at the Country Club Plaza offices of the Skelly Oil Company.
But after war in Europe broke out, he was so eager to fight that he found a shortcut in. He enlisted in 1941 — but not with the U.S. Army.
The quickest route for an American fighter pilot wanting to blast German Messerschmitts was the Royal Canadian Air Force. After the U.S. entered the war, he transferred to the U.S. Army Air Force.
That was Decker, “charming” and “scheming,” Calovich said.
He had no children to survive him. The closest living relative they have found to date is a nephew in Arizona. Every other step of the way has led to contacts listed among records as “deceased … deceased … deceased,” she said.
As they prepare for their trip to France later this month, all of the fellows in the institute have been comparing their work on a blog, and the institute has been assigning reading and research assignments.
On their trip, they will first stop over in Washington, D.C., to deepen their archival work before going to France, where they will each visit the graves and deliver eulogies.
Then they’ll return to finish their work and complete their stories, in print, online and spoken.
The Sion team will tell that here was a local hero, Lauck said, “that he lived. That he was.”
It catches Calovich’s breath to imagine being there.
“I’ll probably be hyperventilating on the plane,” she said.
She and Lauck imagine remembering the young man who grew up in that limestone house, who walked those halls of Northeast High School.
They’ll be standing on that beach and imagining his plane ripping by overhead into France, and the face of the pilot in the picture, who looked like “he knew he wouldn’t see home again,” Lauck said.
And they will stand at his grave. They will lay down their gifts and they will know, as deeply as they can, who this one man was among the thousands who died there.