Letters to veterans project of 10 years wins recognition for Merrimack teacher Debra Walter

MERRIMACK – A Veterans Day celebration on Friday, Nov. 8, at Thorntons Ferry School in Merrimack, included a recognition ceremony that was a surprise to teacher Debra “Debbe” Walter. She is the organizer of a project ongoing for some 10 years in which her current third-grade class writes notes of appreciation to veterans.

The notes are included with dinner favors – packets of candies secured with ribbon – that are made by her students for veterans attending annual free Veterans Day dinners hosted by the Homestead Restaurant & Tavern, 641 Daniel Webster Highway.

The tradition began years earlier with the owners of Silo’s Steakhouse, a restaurant that closed prior to the Homestead’s opening a few years ago.

The event at the elementary school, 134 Camp Sargent Road, was made memorable by a tribute from Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who saluted Walter and her students for their commitment to America’s veterans. The gathering was chronicled by a television crew from WMUR. Walter’s husband, fellow teachers and some parents of the third-graders attended.

Adding personal sentiments were the wife, daughter, and son-in-law of the late Guy Hastings, an Army veteran who received many of the children’s notes of appreciation over the years. He passed away last year around Christmas.

Frances Hastings, Guy’s widow, thanked the teacher and the students. She and Guy reached their 60th wedding anniversary shortly before he passed away in his sleep, at home, at age 83. He had been unwell for some time.

There, too, was Shari Hastings Lucey, of Merrimack, and her husband, Will Lucey. Shari is the daughter of the couple and also is a veteran. She served 10 years in the Army Reserves and National Guard. Some of her hitch coincided with her father’s service, for Guy spent some 30 years in the regular Army and in the Army Reserves.

“My dad was very appreciative of all the cards he’d received from the students,” Shari said. “He and Mom went to the dinners at the restaurant and my mother sent thank you letters for the notes and the dinner favors the students made.”

Donation made

The family donated in honor of Walter’s class a sum of $100 to benefit Fisher House, a Boston facility that provides free lodging to families of military members undergoing treatment at military medical centers in the region.

Students from Walter’s current class of third-graders read some of their notes and letters at the ceremony. The readings expressed in simple words their appreciation for all veterans.

Walter said the letter-writing project started long ago when Dean and Suzanne Robins owned Silo’s Steakhouse and began hosting free Veterans Day dinners for the military.

At the time, Walter was looking for a way to teach her students about America’s freedoms.

She said she contacted Dean with the idea that perhaps her students could make little favors for the veterans coming to dine.

“He agreed and a tradition was born,” Walter said. “The sending of individual cards to veterans started from the thank you notes the class received for making the favors. I have kept all the thank-you notes we’ve received. We use the addresses each year to send cards.”

A few years ago, three brothers – Mark, Mike and Chris McDonough – bought Silo’s and opened the Homestead Restaurant & Tavern. The tradition continued with the new enterprise.

Walter added that there are veterans who have for many years kept in touch with her class.

Longtime writers

Some of the longtime letter writers include Oliver T. Carter, of Litchfield, Phillip Jacobs, of Bedford, Dean Smith, of Warner, and Roy Shoults, of Manchester, along with Merrimack’s Richard Crow and Ken Brooks.

“These veterans all go out of their way to thank the children each year,” Walter said. “They have made a tremendous difference to the children.”

Brian Zaccardo, the Homestead’s assistant general manager, said the enthusiasm of the third-graders has not waned.

If ever a surplus of the favors occurs, he shares the bounty with local veterans at American Legion Post 98 or the VFW’s Post 8641. Sometimes, the VA Hospital in Manchester is the beneficiary.

“We offer veterans a free prime rib dinner and then they are presented with these little gifts,” Zaccardo said. “They’re very touched that the kids are showing such an appreciation of their service.”

Principal Bridey Bellmare said the visit from Sen. Kelly Ayotte came about when Frances Hastings wrote a letter to Ayotte’s office and asked that Walter be recognized for the letter-writing project.

“Each year, Mrs. Walter has her third-grade students write letters to veterans, thanking them for their service,” Bellmare said. “The letters thank them for their service and all they do to keep our nation safe and protect the liberties we have in the United States.”