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Leadership Through Example: Whitcomb High Senior Inspires Others With Daily Pledge of Allegiance

  • Whitcomb High School senior Tim Patch, left of center in black, says the Pledge of Allegiance flanked by fellow students and staff members in Bethel yesterday morning. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Whitcomb High School senior Tim Patch, left of center in black, says the Pledge of Allegiance flanked by fellow students and staff members in Bethel yesterday morning. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • From left, members of American Legion Post 9 of Randolph, Sumner Small, Tom Malanchuk and Russell Heyl congratulate Patch after recognizing him for his patriotism at the Randolph Career Technical Center. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    From left, members of American Legion Post 9 of Randolph, Sumner Small, Tom Malanchuk and Russell Heyl congratulate Patch after recognizing him for his patriotism at the Randolph Career Technical Center. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Tim Patch, of Bethel, leads Legion members (from left) Dave Peirce, Peter Chase, Clayton Butterfield and Sumner Small in the Pledge of Allegiance during class at the Randolph Career Technical Center. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Tim Patch, of Bethel, leads Legion members (from left) Dave Peirce, Peter Chase, Clayton Butterfield and Sumner Small in the Pledge of Allegiance during class at the Randolph Career Technical Center. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Clayton Butterfield of American Legion Post Nine, left, tells Tim Patch, of Bethel, how important it is for him to see people show respect to the flag. The post commended Patch for his practice of saying the pledge outside Whitcomb High School each morning. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Clayton Butterfield of American Legion Post Nine, left, tells Tim Patch, of Bethel, how important it is for him to see people show respect to the flag. The post commended Patch for his practice of saying the pledge outside Whitcomb High School each morning. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Whitcomb High School senior Tim Patch, left of center in black, says the Pledge of Allegiance flanked by fellow students and staff members in Bethel yesterday morning. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • From left, members of American Legion Post 9 of Randolph, Sumner Small, Tom Malanchuk and Russell Heyl congratulate Patch after recognizing him for his patriotism at the Randolph Career Technical Center. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Tim Patch, of Bethel, leads Legion members (from left) Dave Peirce, Peter Chase, Clayton Butterfield and Sumner Small in the Pledge of Allegiance during class at the Randolph Career Technical Center. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Clayton Butterfield of American Legion Post Nine, left, tells Tim Patch, of Bethel, how important it is for him to see people show respect to the flag. The post commended Patch for his practice of saying the pledge outside Whitcomb High School each morning. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

Bethel — For nearly four years, Tim Patch said the Pledge of Allegiance by himself, from time to time standing in front of the flag outside his high school, saying his piece and heading back into the building.

Then in February, the Whitcomb High School senior was joined by a teacher. The pledge became part of the pair’s daily routines.

Now in two short months, an Air Force recruit’s solitary show of patriotism has mushroomed in popularity, with Patch’s early-morning pledges now attracting as many as 20 students and teachers each day.

“It kind of shocked me,” Patch said yesterday, after a group of 13 faced the flag, recited the pledge’s 31 words and went back into the school. “A lot of people thanked me.”

Patch, 19, simply considers the recitation a part of “carrying (his) daily cross,” a quick act to be completed before boarding the bus that goes to the Randolph Technical Career Center, where he takes most of his classes. When Patch graduates, he’ll move into the Air Force — he’s already in its delayed entry program.

“For Tim, it probably is exactly what it is,” said Bill Sugarman, director of the technical center, where Patch, of Bethel, is enrolled in the Public Safety and Criminal Justice program. “It’s just an opportunity for him to pay his allegiance to the United States.”

Whether or not it was his goal, however, Patch’s pledging has affected others. At 7:45 every morning, Whitcomb Food Service Director Sandy Gilderdale stops what she’s doing and looks out the window. A line of students and teachers invariably appears outside, in front of the American flag that stands on the school’s front lawn.

“I turn around in the cafeteria,” she said, “and I wait until the hats come off.”

Vermont is one of only a handful of states without a set law regarding the Pledge of Allegiance in schools, meaning teachers decide whether to recite the pledge .

“If teachers wish to do it, they have the right to do it,” said Kevin Dirth, the principal of Whitcomb. “If not, they have the right not to.”

Ten years ago, Vermont was one of eight states without such a law, according to the Education Commission of the States. In the past few years, Maine, Michigan and Nebraska passed laws, further reducing the number of states without any type of mandate to five.

In New Hampshire, schools are required to set aside time for the pledge, though students themselves are not required to participate.

Against the do-what-you-will backdrop of the Green Mountain state, Patch’s action caused one administrator pause.

“If somebody’s interested enough to go outside and do that every day, wouldn’t we welcome them into the school to do that?” Sugarman asked.

He noted that the crowd at the technical center’s commencement historically has said the pledge, and he’s never received a complaint. He said he would check out the potential for integrating the pledge into daily life at the technical center.

“This is important,” said Gilderdale, the food service director. “This is what our country is based on.”

At precisely 10 a.m. yesterday, eight members of Randolph’s American Legion Post 9 began the short trek to Patch’s class at the technical center from the building’s main office. One member, Russell Heyl, carried a framed certificate.

Sugarman led them into the classroom. A drug-sniffing chocolate Lab, Rondo, trotted between Patch’s classroom and an adjacent one, a tennis ball clenched in his teeth. Equipment recently used for the class’s last unit — ice rescue — decorated the floor.

“Where is Tim Patch?” Heyl asked. “We’ve got a commendation for you.”

“Thank you, sir,” Patch said, standing up.

Heyl, himself a Vietnam-era veteran, said in an interview Tuesday that his initial reaction to hearing about Patch could be summed up in one word: Wow.

Patch seemed to have turned the stereotypical image of today’s self-absorbed millennials on its head: “Wow.”

Tom Harty, Patch’s teacher, pointed out to the veterans yesterday the four students already involved in the military, such as a friend of Patch’s, Mason Bernardini, who has been in the Marine Corps for eight months.

Bernardini praised both his friend and the act he’s taken on. He called it “revolutionary.”

Earlier, one veteran said Patch deserved something to mark his patriotism.

Another asked what branch of the military Patch was headed toward.

The Air Force, he said.

The veteran joked that he was under the impression Patch was going into the service.

Everybody laughed.

Rondo, tennis ball intact, nearly drooled on the floor.

“What I’d like to do is have you lead the pledge,” said Clayton Butterfield, a legion member.

“I’d be honored to,” Patch said, and his classmates stood and put their hands over their hearts. Some of the legion members opted instead to salute. Patch stood among them, leading for the second time that day.

Bob Kershaw, a paraeducator at Whitcomb, first noticed Patch one morning in February while Kershaw was purchasing breakfast in the school cafeteria. He saw someone outside, standing still, facing away from the school.

Kershaw asked a nearby colleague if she knew anything about it, and she told him he was a regular presence out front, pledging to the flag in the morning.

He went outside, and introduced himself. He asked if he could join. Patch said yes.

In that moment Kershaw remembered his own emotions during the politically fraught Vietnam-era draft, and his distrust of the U.S. government, but then recalled his travels years ago through South American countries whose governments would arrest or kill those who acted out of line. He remembered returning to the U.S., thankful for the freedoms he was allowed to express.

When he realized what Patch was doing, he saw himself, and it sent shivers up his spine.

Jon Wolper can be reached at jwolper@vnews.com or 603-727-3248.