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A community in mourning Moving memorial held at alma mater of fallen soldier

Students gathered Friday in the gymnasium at West Seneca West High School for the annual rite to honor veterans.

This year, they also gathered to mourn.

Sgt. Daniel J. Shaw, 23, a member of the West Seneca West Class of 2003, was killed Monday by an explosion in Iraq. His parents, Ronald and Brenda, sister, grandmother and other relatives were on hand for the observance along with 1,400 students and faculty members.

Principal Jon T. MacSwan, his voice breaking with emotion, thanked the Shaws for their sacrifice.

"We especially thank Dan for making the ultimate sacrifice," he said, adding that Shaw was "a young man who walked these hallways, attended this very program, and persevered as he dedicated himself to serving his country."

For the students who listened to patriotic music performed by classmates and stood in unison when the colors were presented, the occasion transformed Veterans Day from just another school assembly into a moving memorial for a young man who had sat in the same desks just a few years ago.

West Seneca West joined other schools Friday, and veterans and community groups this holiday weekend, in observing Veterans Day.

Shaw was a friendly guy with a big smile and a can-do attitude that served him well in the military, said one of his former teachers, Ray Wassinger.

"I see so many kids in high school that, when they hit the road blocks, they give up, take another road. Dan wasn't going to do that," he said.

Whether it was dressing up as Santa Claus when he worked at Delta Sonic, or wearing his hair in a mohawk and joshing with then-principal James K. Brotz, Shaw was known for his good nature. Brotz, now superintendent, said "he was just a really good kid."

"He was very determined that he wanted to go into the military, and he worked very hard to get there," Brotz said.

Before the program, Ronald Shaw said his son's death has hit the family hard, but they are bolstered by the support from the community.

"I just thank everybody for the support. It's overwhelming," he said.

Sgt. Shaw's body is being returned to Buffalo today. A wake is to be held Sunday and Monday at Lombardo Funeral Home, 3060 Abbott Road, Orchard Park. A Mass of Christian Burial will be offered at 10 a.m. Tuesday in Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Catholic Church, 3148 Abbott Road, Orchard Park.

Mark Beehler, the district's director of science, and also a veteran, said some of those sitting in the gym Friday will decide to join the military.

"If statistics hold true, at least five of the seniors sitting in this gymnasium right now will take this job and go from being bound to a bell schedule, not being able to drive after dark, and having to be home by 11 o'clock, and generally holding very little responsibility," he said, "to being handed a rifle, a Humvee, or tasked with securing an entry point, where your decision is critical to the survival of hundreds."

He said they owe it to women and men like Shaw to do their best every day, no matter what path they choose.

"We can debate war and we can debate politics," said MacSwan, "but there is no debating that the freedoms we exercise in doing so, were obtained by the young men and women who are serving today and have served in the past."

After taps was played and the colors retired, students filed out of the gym silently, and respectfully, for their first-period classes.

e-mail: bobrien@buffnews.com

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