The existence of role models is important for society in general, but its importance is vital in a school setting. In today’s world of information overload, it is just as easy for a student to find an inappropriate role model as it is to find a special one. Once an appropriate role model is found, their story often does not resonate with the diverse interests of a student body. The story might have occurred in a faraway state or country. A truly special role model would be linked to your school in a way that undeniably makes them unique to your school community. Arlington High School (AHS) and our community of LaGrangeville, NY, as a whole are lucky to have such a person. Our role model is so special that we have established an awards program to highlight students who exhibit his qualities. Here is his story.
The Heroic Story of Charlie Johnson
The year is 1953. Two recent Arlington High School graduates bump into each other while serving in the U.S. Army. Charlie Johnson (’51) and Don Dingee (’50) share high school memories, but will soon swap these anecdotes for life-altering war stories. The two friends eventually find themselves side by side in the most important battle of the Korean War, the Battle of Outpost Harry. Charlie, Don, and another soldier, Robert Hooker, fight heroically until just after midnight on June 12, 1953. All three are injured and help each other survive as they work to hold Outpost Harry at all costs. Don’s forearm is hurt, and his foot is severely injured. The three need to move quickly in order to survive. Charlie uses both Don’s and his belt to make a tow rope. He drags Don 150 yards to safety while also guiding Robert. During this journey, Charlie fights off the enemy with weapons he finds on the way. Once Don and Robert are in a safe location, Charlie continues to fight—single-handedly saving at least eight wounded soldiers before eventually losing his life on the battlefield.
This made-for-Hollywood story is true and palpable, as is the sadness of losing Charlie, which lingers to this day. However, Charlie’s willingness to give his life in order to serve his country, his fellow soldiers, and his classmate remains an inspiration today.
Arlington High School is much larger than it was in the 1950s. It now serves about 3,000 students in Dutchess County, New York. Over the years, we have worked hard to make our school seem smaller and less impersonal by creating a house system and developing small school committees that organize events and activities to create positive connections for our students. We have the good fortune of having Charlie Johnson as one of our graduates, and we have benefited greatly from his exemplary character traits and heroism on the battlefield in Korea.
Establishing the Award Program
Over a decade ago, the Charlie Johnson Legacy Committee brought the story of Charlie to the forefront. This committee comprised district and community members—including Don Dingee himself—who wanted Charlie’s story to be celebrated. The seed that was germinated and nurtured by the Charlie Johnson Legacy Committee has blossomed into a homegrown character education program of which we are quite proud. As the executive principal, I established a School Climate Team (SCT) in September 2013 consisting of students, teachers, parents, and administrators with a focus on three pillars: assessment/evaluation, education, and recognition. The story of Charlie fit perfectly with the work of the SCT. Each year, our team asks faculty and staff to submit nominations of students deserving of the Charlie Johnson Moment Award—an award that we consider a very high honor.
Through this award, Arlington High School recognizes students who demonstrate one or more of the outstanding qualities that Charlie possessed (and that adorn the sculpture of Charlie saving his classmate at our Wall of Remembrance): loyalty, brotherhood, selflessness, courage, compassion, responsibility, patriotism, and integrity. Honorees are recognized in the spring at our annual Memorial Day Tribute and concert to which area veterans, political leaders, school district officials, and other dignitaries are invited. Don Dingee himself regularly attended this event to remember his friend and classmate until 2016, when he passed away. Also, Charlie’s siblings attend every year and assist in handing out the awards, personally congratulating each winner.
The name Charlie Johnson is well known in our student body and lauded as an important icon of both our local and national history. In Charlie’s name, we recognize students who have contributed in a distinctive way or devoted themselves to selfless, voluntary service to their community—an important aspect of our mission at Arlington. These students have produced and sustained achievement that has required moral courage, vision, and the ability to make tough choices. They have demonstrated perseverance and hard work, perhaps against the odds.
The Impact of the Charlie Johnson Moment Award Program
Arlington High School—and our nation—is blessed to have had Charlie Johnson, who so selflessly and honorably devoted his life to the perpetuation of our ideals. One can see the importance of these ideals to our community by viewing student-created public service announcements that have been played during our televised daily announcements and that are posted on our website (https://tinyurl.com/arlcharlie).
This program is dear to me and many others in our school. “We consider ourselves very fortunate to have Charlie Johnson among our graduates,” says AHS House Principal Richard Carroll. “His story is not only an important example of high character for our students, but also serves as a way to connect our school to the community at large, particularly our veterans, alumni, and their families.”
“I believe this program highlights the fantastic community spirit that’s already instilled in our student body. It also focuses on the student who makes a difference every day without having to, and how they have made a difference in our community by their actions, rather than their words,” says AHS Health Educator Nicole Benedetto. “I am proud to be part of such a great program that allows students to lead and be role models to not only our student body, but our community as well.”
This program gives our students access to a special role model unique to our community and allows us to celebrate those students who emulate his actions. We are lucky to have such an individual. Find your local role model and celebrate his or her actions for the benefit of your community. I am proud of our school and what we have to offer our students. I am proud to know the story of Charlie Johnson and proud to perpetuate his story to our community and beyond.
Paul M. Fanuele, EdD, is the executive principal of Arlington High School in LaGrangeville, NY.
Sidebar: Public Recognition of Charlie Johnson
The Taconic Region of the PTA awarded the Arlington High School PTSA the Outstanding Unit Program award in 2017 for its partnership with Arlington High School in the Charlie Johnson Moment Award program. Actors Gary Sinise and Dennis Haysbert portrayed Don Dingee and Charlie Johnson, respectively, in the PBS 2010 National Memorial Day Concert, held on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol (watch the video here: https://tinyurl.com/pbscharlie). On the following Memorial Day, in 2011, Charlie Johnson was prominently depicted in a documentary distributed by American Public Television, “Hold at All Costs.”