ANDERSON — Fred Fey rarely talked about his service in the Korean War. His family knew little more than he had earned a Purple Heart for being wounded in battle.
But Fey, who died Nov. 1, left a surprising and lasting treasure for his stepson, Steve Shipley, and for Steve's wife, Lori. They wouldn't learn of it until after they buried Fey.
And Fey unwittingly left a history lesson for students at Lapel High School. In a small way, Fey's life touched people on different levels: high school students, a family and his own tale.
One teacher's idea
Every morning before the Pledge of Allegiance starts the day at Lapel High School, U.S. history teacher Dorinda Cassiday reads her class an obituary from that day's newspaper. The clipping highlights the life of a local military veteran who has just died. The reading stresses that unsung individuals, such as those in the obituaries, had as much impact on American life as did better-known historical figures.
"The stories of the lives of our leaders gives us huge insights into their times," Cassiday said. "But not everyone is going to be famous."
The exercise began five years ago when she began stapling obituaries to her bulletin board in the front of her classroom. She told her class they were going to start paying attention to the local residents they were losing.
Just a week later, a female student proposed a way to share the project.
"She asked me, 'Do you think their families would like to know we're doing this?'" Cassiday said. "So we had a class discussion and said we probably should."
A torrent of thank-you letters came back from family members grateful for the recognition. Local families even came up to students and thanked them when they saw them out of school.
Now students discuss the project with their own grandparents, opening new lines of communication.
"The cool thing about this is my kids are reaching out to the older generation now," Cassiday said. "And that has really been a blessing."
Junior Hunter Fairholm said that seeing the veterans and learning about them makes the history seem a little more real.
"It helps me recognize the sacrifice those men and women made," he said. "It makes it a little more personal."
The personal touch
In November, one of those daily letters from the Lapel students came to Steve and Lori Shipley, of Anderson. The couple had just buried Steve's stepfather, Fred Fey, who died at 82 after a yearlong illness.
The letter told of the bulletin board filled with veterans' obituaries. It noted that the students held a moment of silence in Fey's honor. His obituary would stay on the board. "We would like for you to know that it will remain in our classroom during this school year as a reminder of our debt to the local, brave 'everyday' warriors," the letter read.
Lori was overwhelmed, her eyes teared, as she read the note signed by Cassiday and her 28 students.
"It was so touching and it made me so proud," she said. "That a teacher and a classroom of students would honor and commemorate a veteran like that, I was really touched."
The Shipleys praised Cassiday for what she is teaching students about veterans and the United States.
"It sets a standard for the kids," Lori said. "It teaches them to honor and respect people who have done a service to this country."
The Shipleys were amazed that a group of teens who didn't know anything about a Korean War veteran would be willing to take the time to think about them and their family.
"They took time out for someone they didn't know anything about other than he was a veteran," Steve Shipley said. "That's pretty awesome."
A humble veteran
A few days after Fey's death on Nov. 1, another surprise came to the Shipleys.
They knew he was a patriotic man, even after leaving the service. He had told them about his Purple Heart, awarded after he took shrapnel while a member of the 245th Tank Battalion of the 45th Infantry Division. He never displayed the medal.
“He was very humble about it,” Lori said. “I asked him one time, ‘Fred why don’t you hang this up,’ but he didn’t want to. He would have never of thought that he was a hero. But obviously he was.”
Lori Shipley is a nurse in the critical care unit at St. Vincent Anderson Regional Hospital. Steve Shipley is retired as a paramedic with the Anderson Fire Department.
Fey, born in Shelbyville, had signed up for the Army in 1951 after the country went to war with Korea.
“He was very proud of his country,” Lori said. “He’s probably one of the most well-versed people on the state of the economy and politics. He watched Fox News all day long.”
After his military service was over, Fey worked as an auditor for AIG Insurance in Anderson. At 82, he died after a yearlong illness. He was buried Nov. 15.
Four days later, Lori received a package at her home.
“At first I thought it was his medicine,” she said. “And I opened it up and it was all his medals.”
Packed inside the box were other honors the Shipleys had never seen.
“I’ve known the man for 38 years and I didn’t know about this,” Steve said, gesturing to the medals and pins laid out on a table. “Except for the Purple Heart.”
One of the biggest surprises: three Bronze Star medals.
The fourth-highest individual military award, the Bronze Star is bestowed on soldiers for acts of heroism or merit. The Shipleys said they had no idea that Fey received the award, much less how he earned it.
For the Shipleys, the medals are more tangible evidence of the value of Fred Fey's life.
“He was sharp as a tack,” Steve said smiling. “It was just his body couldn’t hang in there. He had quite a history of different health things. He had throat cancer and quadruple bypass history. We always used to say Fred had nine lives, we just didn’t know which one he was on.”
Fey's obituary now hangs with others above a white bulletin board in a Lapel classroom where it will be joined by hundreds of others over the course of the year. Cassiday expects the obits will overflow to all corners of the room by the time May rolls around.
And for the students and the Shipleys, the obituaries stand as proof that a group of individual soldiers are still teaching students valuable history lessons.
Follow Zach Osowski on Twitter @Osowski_THB or call him at 640-4847.