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Nearly 200 Years—Learn More About Norwich

By Bill Walsh ’77

The Norwich Record | Summer 2018

Some people leave indelible marks on our souls. They enter our thoughts for no apparent reason, and we wonder why, then return to what we’re doing and move on. Sometimes, we stop and pay attention. That’s the way it’s been with Pete Jaskilka.

On the Friday morning of the 2017 Homecoming weekend—my 40th class reunion—I was anxious to visit Major Pete Jaskilka’s grave. A USAF pilot and NU civil engineer, he will always be a friend, a rook buddy, a rugby teammate, a fellow senior honor committee member, a major in the Corps of Cadets who led by example, and the first person to be buried at the Norwich University Cemetery on Dole Farm. For this visit, my wife, Diane, and I joined a small group for a cemetery tour.

The NU Cemetery is holy ground in an awe-inspiring setting, a peaceful and solemn place beautifully cared for by the NU Cemetery Association. After visiting Pete’s grave, I told the following story, one that will be forever etched in my mind.

In early September 1988, Dave Whaley ’76 called me from the Alumni Office to tell me that Pete had passed away at 33. The news shook me to the core. For if a person were to live forever based on attitude, selflessness, and caring, it would be Pete. He possessed the rare ability to live each day to its fullest. He wore a smile that radiated his zest for life. His laugh was contagious, and he might have been the happiest guy in our class, especially after falling in love with and marrying Sue Hay VC’78, now Sue Staretorp. They made a handsome couple.

After Pete’s funeral at White Chapel, the procession slowly navigated uphill to the NU Cemetery. As the minister read from scripture, we could hear slow flying jets above the clouds. When the service ended, an Air Force officer announced that the clouds were too low for the scheduled flyby. We were terribly disappointed.

Just before we dispersed, however, Steve Svrcek ’77, a pilot and rook buddy, calmly said, “Here it comes—down the ski slope.” Ever so close to the treetops, a lone F-16 Fighting Falcon screamed down Paine Mountain. Stunned, we watched the jet disappear into the valley for a few seconds. When it reappeared, the fighter was pointing directly at us: vulnerable souls watching in astonishment. As the plane’s belly became visible, its afterburners howled as red and orange flames spewed from its exhaust. The fighter’s roar was deafening. We stretched our necks as it shot straight up and over us. After two slow barrel rolls, it disappeared into the clouds and flew off—just as Pete had done only a few days earlier. We stood, shocked into stillness, our mouths half-open. None of us spoke as we listened to the jet’s engine grow dim. For what could be said about this spectacular tribute and final salute to a forever smiling Pete, one of NU’s finest.

About the Author
Bill Walsh ’77 majored in business administration and minored in philosophy and English at Norwich University. He received an MA in theology from the University of Notre Dame and served as a vice president with the Vermont Chamber of Commerce. He lives with his wife of 37 years, Diane, in Barre Town, Vt.

(Above): Pete Jaskilka ’77 as a senior cadet with his future wife, Sue Hay VC’78. Pete’s father-in-law, Gordon Hay ’49, who died in 2016, paid him the ultimate compliment by requesting that he be buried next to his son-in-law at the NU Cemetery (see “In Memoriam,” Norwich Record, winter 2017). Photo courtesy Bill Walsh ’77