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SCHOOL HONORS IRAQ WAR VICTIM

Nothing can erase David T. McKeever's pain.

But it helps a lot to know that the South Buffalo community -- old buddies, fellow veterans, young students and strangers-turned-friends -- share his loss and view his son as a hero.

"This was beautiful," McKeever said Tuesday morning, moments after Southside Elementary School honored his son, Army Sgt. David M. McKeever, 25, a South Buffalo native who was killed in an ambush April 5 outside Baghdad.

The ceremony had all the earmarks of a neighborhood that prides itself on cooperation and a gritty, roll-up-the-sleeves style.

Mike Schaefer, a bricklayer, spent summer weekends with his wife and three children building a sign that welcomes visitors to the school.

Stones incorporated in the sign honor Sgt. McKeever, a former student at Southside, and thank the informal alumni group that helped raise the funds.

Local businesses prepared the site, donated concrete and brick, and supplied a time capsule that was buried at Tuesday's ceremony.

Maryann Lopez, a retired Southside teacher who taught Sgt. McKeever in sixth grade, fought back tears at an assembly program to describe him as a "gentle giant" who mowed lawns and shoveled snow for neighbors when he wasn't in the street playing football or hockey.

The 1,200 pupils in the auditorium of Southside -- which has the largest enrollment of all city elementary schools -- stood as one when men who recently served in Iraq were introduced, along with veterans of earlier wars. "These gentlemen are the real heroes in life," Schaefer said.

McKeever's death broke the collective heart of South Buffalo, but also brought it closer together.

Schaefer, the bricklayer, and David T. McKeever, the brave and gracious dad who is himself a wounded Vietnam veteran, never met before tragedy struck. Now friends, they exchanged a bear hug at Tuesday's ceremony.

"He's a very kind and considerate person to want to express that kind of feeling," McKeever said of Schaefer's efforts. "It makes you feel proud that you're part of this community."

Despite its large enrollment, Southside, located at 430 Southside Parkway, has lots of heart and warmth, Principal Theresa Schuta said.

"My one goal when I came here was to make the largest school in the city feel like a small school," she said at Tuesday's assembly.

"I want to thank each and every one of you for making that possible."

e-mail: psimon@buffnews.com

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