Citizens: Name school after Cherry

Published 10:03 pm Thursday, October 20, 2016

A movement is in the air to name Suffolk’s new middle school, currently under construction in North Suffolk, for a Suffolk native and former prisoner of war who died earlier this year.

U.S. Air Force Col. Fred Vann Cherry was 87 years old when he died on Feb. 16. He was the first and highest-ranking black officer to become a prisoner in Vietnam. He was shot down Oct. 22, 1965, and subsequently spent more than seven years in captivity.

“That is a hero, in my book and in many others’,” Lisa Cross said during last week’s School Board meeting, speaking in favor of naming the school after Cherry.


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Cherry’s time in captivity, and his friendship with a white man imprisoned with him, was the subject of a book, “Two Souls Indivisible: The Friendship that Saved Two POWs in Vietnam,” by James S. Hirsch. The Vietnamese confined Cherry with Lt. j.g. Porter Halyburton mistakenly thinking that racial tension would break them. However, the two advocated for each other, learned from each other and became friends.

Cherry was released in February 1973. His awards and decorations include two Purple Hearts, the Silver Star, the Air Force Cross, the Legion of Merit with Oak Leaf Cluster, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, two Bronze Stars with Combat V, the Prisoner of War Medal and more.

Cherry retired in 1981 after more than 30 years in the Air Force. He went on to start his own engineering company.

Lisa Cross said during last week’s meeting that she moved to Suffolk after Cherry’s release and had never heard of him until two months ago, when she attended a Vietnam-centered event at the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts. Halyburton, as well as Cherry’s family, were in attendance, and some of Cherry’s memorabilia was displayed at the event.

“Sitting in that former school auditorium, I got to thinking about it,” Cross said. “He’s so exceptional that maybe we could make an exception and name a school after him.”

Robert Stephens, who did know Cherry personally, also spoke at last week’s meeting in favor of naming the new school after Cherry.

Cherry was assigned as Stephens’ mentor by the Small Business Association when he was starting a defense contracting firm, Stephens recalled. He was a successful businessman in addition to his more well-known role of military hero, Stephens said.

“I want to just emphasize that this is not just about recognizing a local hometown hero who happens to be African-American,” Stephens said. “It’s also recognizing a man who, in spite of challenges, demonstrated great courage and the ability to overcome enormous odds and succeeded on a global stage.”

Col. Cherry’s daughter, Cynthia Cherry-Leon, said this week her family supports the idea of naming the school after her father.

“I think it’s amazing,” she said. “I think it’s rightly deserved. He was an amazing man, an amazing patriot. He loved his country and literally would have died for his country. He loved Suffolk, and he loved his hometown.”

Cross and Stephens both said naming a school after Cherry would serve to educate future generations about his legacy.

“He has values and a life story worth studying, celebrating and modeling,” Cross said. “He was an educator, not by profession, more importantly by example. This is our chance to give Suffolk students and citizens what we all need — a real hometown hero.”