Setting Sail

Lester F. Harris
Lester F. Harris

When I think of family and losses, my thoughts turn first to an uncle whom I never met. Lester Franklin Harris was the older brother to my father. Born the 21st day of February in 1918, Uncle Lester came of age during the depression era. He helped run the family farm for a few years after graduation from high school. In 1941, with conflicts escalating all over the world, he joined the US Navy and headed to the Great Lakes for training.

Lester did not make it home from World War II. His loss came years before any of my generation arrived, so none of us had the chance to know Uncle Lester. But we heard about him. My cousin, the son of Lester’s older sister, was named after him with a middle name of Lester. Additionally, David Lester’s life was so impacted by his mother’s love for her brother that he later joined the US Navy himself and remained active in the Navy reserves for many years beyond his active duty.

When the telegraph bearing news of Lester’s presumed death arrived at his home, the family–my family–bore a tragic shock. His parents had lost a son. His sister and younger brothers had lost their brother. His fiance had lost her soul mate. And those of us who came later not only lost an uncle, we lost the aunt he would have brought into the family, and any cousins who might arrived. Growing up, we didn’t know we had lost anything in particular. We’d never known the world with Lester in it. So how could we miss him?

Decades later, after the deaths of his younger brothers, I have found a box of Lester’s letters. And I understand. My grandmother saved everything. She filled a scrapbook with postcards he sent, photos, and other memories. Through his own words, I am now learning who my uncle was, what he meant to the family, and the scope of his tragic and untimely death. Over the next few months, I will post those letters, on the anniversaries of their origin, and share a few of the memories from over seventy years ago.

Today’s post is a speech he gave at his high school graduation. As salutatorian of his class, he was expected to address those in attendance. Surprisingly enough, or maybe without surprise, he spoke of a ship setting sail as a metaphor for graduates launching into their lives after school days are over. I post it today, for it was possibly on this date in the year 1941 when Lester left home for his basic training.


Setting Sail
This week will see members of senior classes from all parts of the United States receiving their diplomas and setting sail on their life vocations.
When a ship starts on a voyage it is loaded with fuel. If the ship is large or the voyage long, stops may be made at several fueling stations. So it is in our life. Our fuel is knowledge, gleaned from our school life. Our first fueling station is the eight years of grade school. Our second, high school, and for those doing larger things in life, a third, college.
Ships are always in danger of being veered from their course by storms, of running onto hidden reefs or rocks. Our storms are discouragements, financial reverses or perhaps choosing the wrong vocation. The sunken reefs and rocks are perhaps the association with the wrong kind of friends.
However a ship does not by any means sail blindly. It has a pilot, lighthouses, and buoys to guide it and mark the dangerous spots. A young graduate’s pilot can be a number of persons—his parents, his teachers, or his friends. Usually each has a large part in determining what route the graduate will take. The lighthouses and buoys are perhaps business partners or others who can help to mark the best course for the graduate who is “Setting Sail” on new seas.
Lester F. Harris, Salutatorian
Senior Class of Dunlap Rural High School
Dunlap, Morris County, Kansas

4 thoughts on “Setting Sail

  1. nancyhsturm

    This is fascinating. How fortunate for you that the family saved all those letters. What a precious glimpse into the history of both family and country.

  2. Floyd Webster

    What a shame such a beautiful person’s life was cut-down just as it was beginning. Enjoyed his presentation of life in the early 40’s.

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