Ruch Community School's gymnasium Thursday morning was filled with celebration.

American flags flashed as students and staff, dancing to the beat of Earth, Wind & Fire's "September," greeted about a dozen veterans.

The tone grew more serious as the veterans and a current soldier stood and introduced themselves one by one. Every introduction received a hearty, "We salute you!" from the audience, usually accompanied by a vigorous flag-wave.

Students read letters thanking the veterans, and sixth-grader Cassee Pfeifer sang the national anthem to loud applause. Hours after students went back to class, they were still talking about the guests and their stories.

Principal Julie Barry said the enthusiasm of staff and students enabled the school to plan the ceremony in two days. During the school's early-morning "Jump Start" time Tuesday, she asked students to describe what the Veterans Day holiday is about and whether they knew people who had served in the military. The level of interest they showed got her thinking.

"You know, we can’t let this go by the wayside," Barry said. "How do we show our appreciation? What do we do?"

Over the next couple of days, she and other staff members recruited local veterans to attend by turning up at nearby businesses and extending the offer: "Come to our school Thursday morning. Tell us your story."

Dallas Link and Emma McRoy, both in the eighth grade, said the assembly reminded them how proud they felt of the veterans in their families. McRoy also called it a learning experience.

"I've learned that there's a lot that we need to be more grateful for," she said. "There's a lot that we take for granted. We need to be grateful for just being able to walk down the street without anything bad happening to us."

Barry invited her father, who goes by "Doc Shaw," to be among those honored at the assembly. Shaw served in the Army from 1962 to '65, spending two of those years in Germany as an engineer.

"I thought it was great," he said. "When the kids come up and shake your hand and say thank you ... to me that's what I take out of it."

Ruch wasn't the only school honoring veterans.

For the last seven years, Kelly Dempsey, a third-grade teacher at Abraham Lincoln Elementary, has had her students write letters to active and former servicemen and women throughout the year.

"I grew up in a family that it was taught that you respect and honor those who served, and it’s something that I think is really important," Dempsey said. As the year progresses, her students develop a greater awareness of soldiers' impact on their lives, and they want to write to even more of them, and more often.

Barry said the same was true at Ruch. Some of the veterans offered to come back and speak to classes about their experiences, a suggestion apparently welcomed by students.

"The sacrifices and stories and journeys of these people need to be kept alive," she said. "We need to do a better job of honoring them every day."

— Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at 541-776-4497 or ktornay@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ka_tornay.