Monday, October 22, 2018

Woodfill Honors 100th Anniversary of its Namesake's Heroic Act

Robert Woodfill, Ph.D., a distant relative and expert on Major Samuel Woodfill, holds a Woodfill sign. Woodfill students in the front row include (from left to right) Roland Hensley, Hayden Gessner, Piperlyn Kramer, Avery Barber and Isabella Neufarth. Back row includes Ramey Hensley (former Woodfill student and recent Highlands High School grad), Rochelle Hensely (Woodfill secretary and nurse assistant) and Dawn Hils (Woodfill 5th grade teacher).

For most people, Friday, October 12, was a typical fall day – the sun came up, eggs were scrambled, lunches were packed. Maybe you took a spelling test at school. Maybe you tapped away at a keyboard or register or machines at work. Maybe you rocked a baby and folded laundry at home. In the evening, it was time for dinner, perhaps at the table with family, perhaps at a restaurant with friends. Maybe you read a book, worked on a puzzle or watched T.V. And as the sun slipped down so did you, into your warm bed, hopefully, at peace.

Friday, October 12, 100 years ago, in Cunel, France, things were far from peaceful. For it was on this day, in 1918, that First Lieutenant Samuel Woodfill and his company, while advancing through thick fog, came under heavy attack. Despite machine gunfire and mustard gas, Woodfill advanced his troops to safety, taking out 19 German soldiers independently, using a rifle, pick axe and hand-to-hand combat. All of his company's men survived, and Woodfill was heavily awarded for his bravery (his awards included the Medal of Honor). He also was an honored guest at the original dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown Solider at Arlington National Cemetery.

Many people consider Woodfill, who lived in Fort Thomas after the war, a hometown hero. Samuel Woodfill Elementary is a testament to that. But in addition to the school, the plaques and the room dedicated to him in the Fort Thomas Military and Community Museum, it is, perhaps, the simple recognition that our peaceful Fridays and freedoms exist, in part, thanks to Woodfill and his heroic act.

"I think it is important for our students to understand what Major Woodfill did for our country and to have an understanding of the sacrifice all our servicemen and women do for our country," says Woodfill Elementary Principal Keith Faust. "To me his actions speak directly to the '7 Habits' [part of Woodfill's Leader in Me program]. The bravery, valor and courage he displayed are embedded within the habits. Our students should be proud of their school – by learning of his actions and sacrifice they, too, can model some of these behaviors and be model Fort Thomas citizens."

Enter Woodfill Elementary 5th Grade Teacher Dawn Hils (and a bit of luck).

Every January students and teachers at Woodfill Elementary celebrate Woodfill's birthday. "It's so important to connect our present to our past," Hils says. "In my social studies classes, I try to make history relevant by tying in current events or other pertinent things to which students can relate."

This year, she says, the connection is especially timely with documentaries and other news coverage focusing on the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI (November 11, also Veterans Day) – something the City of Fort Thomas is celebrating as well.

"Mr. Faust had this idea [to celebrate Woodfill's birthday] a few years ago, and it's been a neat way to teach our students about our school namesake," Hils says. "Our cafeteria even bakes a cake in Samuel Woodfill's honor." Hils also teaches a mini unit on Woodfill, sharing facts and stories.

But Faust wanted to do something special to honor Woodfill this October.

"He asked me to think of some ways we could honor this anniversary, and as fate would have it, I stumbled upon an expert and distant relative," Hils says.

The connection happened at a family funeral in Madison, Ind. While talking about Woodfill Elementary at the reception, a relative and friend put Hils in contact with some Woodfill experts through the Switzerland County Library.

"This led to my connection with Dr. Robert Woodfill," Hils says. "Of course, I'm very proud of our school, as I've taught here for 30 years. Mentioning our school and its namesake is not unusual, but stumbling upon this kind of connection was a stroke of incredible luck!"

Robert Woodfill, Ph.D., a biographer, historian and distant relative to Samuel Woodfill, has spent the last 19 years researching Samuel Woodfill's life.

Samuel Woodfill was born January 6, 1883, in Bryantsburg, Ind. Robert Woodfill, who lives in Vevay, Ind., is now considered a local expert on Samuel Woodfill, and has written a seven-part series, "The Life of Major Samuel Woodfill," which serves as a synopsis of his life. (And which he graciously allowed to be incorporated into Woodfill's curriculum as well.)

On October 12, the Jefferson County Veterans Council and the United States WWI Centennial Commission hosted a celebration of Samuel Woodfill's life at Indiana Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Madison, Ind. There, Samuel Woodfill was recognized, and a bronze statue was unveiled in his honor.


The flyer advertising Woodfill's October 12 celebration in Indiana.

The bronze bust of Major Samuel Woodfill was sculpted by Indiana artist Donna Weaver.

Woodfill Elementary students stand with author and keynote speaker Ben Newell. Newell donated a copy of his book to Woodfill's school library.

Woodfill Elementary sent several student representatives, including Roland Hensley, Hayden Gessner, Piperlyn Kramer, Avery Barber and Isabella Neufarth. Also in attendance was Ramey Hensley (a former Woodfill student and recent Highlands High School grad), Rochelle Hensely (Woodfill's secretary and nurse assistant), Michael Hils (Highlands High School social studies teacher and department head), Faust and Dawn Hils. After the celebration, Robert Woodfill invited all of Woodfill's representatives to be his guests at a "Get to Know the Woodfills" reception at Clifty Inn.

In addition, Robert Woodfill has offered to visit Fort Thomas October 23, and speak to 4th and 5th grade Woodfill students.

"We are most excited about this collaboration because he will bring the 'Indiana perspective' of Samuel Woodfill's life and heroic deeds," Hils says. "These different viewpoints will add to our rich knowledge and respect for Samuel Woodfill's various accomplishments, as well as our understanding of his personal life on the home front."

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To mark the 100th anniversary of Samuel Woodfill's bravery, 5th grade Woodfill students also visited the Fort Thomas Military and Community Museum on October 12. There, Deanna Beineke, a retired teacher and museum docent, shared Woodfill artifacts and shared information about Woodfill's life from a local perspective. Robert Woodfill will make a similar visit to the museum October 24, spending time with the docents and possibly collaborating on future projects, including our city's Veterans Day celebration.

Woodfill Elementary purchased a banner to be displayed in Fort Thomas, honoring its namesake.

Special to this year's Veterans Day, banners, honoring veterans, will be displayed throughout the City of Fort Thomas. (You can read more about that here.) The cost to sponsor a banner, $200, covered the cost of the banner and additional banner hangers for Alexandria Pike. Any additional money was slated for General Thomas's statue. According to Debbie Buckley, renaissance manager and economic development director for the City of Fort Thomas, 60 banners were purchased. Woodfill Elementary purchased a banner to honor Samuel Woodfill.

"Samuel Woodfill was considered a hero when he lived here in Fort Thomas back in the early 1900s," Buckley says.


Buckley and the Renaissance Board came up with the banner idea after seeing examples when visiting other towns. Fort Thomas resident Cathy Sonnett designed them.

"It was a labor of love, but I'm happy to donate my time to this project — a very important and worthy effort," she says. "Since each banner is custom made, it's taken a bit longer. We began collecting photos in late summer and the response was so great I've been working nights and weekends to prepare them to print in time for Veterans Day." 

(Fun fact: Nov 11 is also Sonnett's birthday. "This year, I'm honored to give this present back to the community," she says. "Feels great to pay it forward.")

Sonnett has been working with folks all over Fort Thomas on this project. "There was a particular family that collected money from its family members all over the country," she says. "They were so proud to honor their family member and worked hard to find the best photo possible. The pride each one of these families take in honoring their loved ones is so genuine and inspiring."

Hils says seeing Woodfill's banner will give Woodfill students a sense of pride. "I think it's important to honor prominent, local citizens because it gives students a connection to their community, its history and its future," Hils says. "Fort Thomas is a military town and we are steeped in military history. Several of our students have relatives who are currently deployed or have been in the past. Our students at Woodfill are especially surrounded by daily reminders of these connections as they live in the heart of Tower Park, the VA, the army reserve base, the military museum, mess hall, and other historical buildings."

And Faust appreciates that Woodfill students recognize the bigger picture through these dips into history.

"In a world where everything seems to be a 24-hour news cycle, it's good to see that there are people like Major Woodfill and things like the '7 Habits' that are timeless and meaningful on a much larger scale," Faust says. "Additionally, to learn that someone right in their very own community who came from humble beginnings rose to such high heights simply by living the 7 Habits is pretty inspiring."
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