BROOKVILLE — One of this community’s most famous native sons made a visit to his alma mater last Friday and made quite an impression.
Retired Air Force Colonel James C. Harding, a 1952 Brookville High School graduate, spent time at the high school with three different speeches, one each to the junior and senior classes along with a short talk with the Raiders football team.
Prior to the Raiders’ playoff game against Ridgway, Harding served as the honorary captain and attended a ceremonial coin toss at midfield.
His introduction drew a predictable reaction from those in attendance, a large applause for the 86-year-old Harding who now resides in Huntingdon, Tenn., with his wife Barbara.
Harding, who first saw combat action during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962, flew 596 combat missions within two tours during the Vietnam War, all of them in propeller aircraft. His military awards include three Air Force Silver Stars, two Legion of Merits, nine Distinguished Flying Crosses, two Bronze Stars, four Purple Hearts and 40 Meritorious Service Air medals.
According to the military website veterantributes.org, Harding is the 25th-most decorated soldier in United States military history.
He’s a member of the recently announced Brookville Area High School Hall of Fame Class of 2020. Although that ceremony hasn’t been scheduled yet, Harding wanted to visit his hometown this fall.
“He had contacted me following our earlier correspondence regarding selection to the BAHS Hall of Fame,” said school board member John Pozza, who nominated Harding to be selected to the Class of 2020. “He asked me how things were going at the school this year and if most kids were attending classes in person. It was he who had expressed a desire to come to speak to the students and to the football team. He was made aware that the football team was undefeated and preparing to host its first district playoff game Friday, which would likely be its last home game of the year.
“I told him if he and his wife were available to come, we would make it all happen after discussing it with the board and the administration. He said he and his wife were available to come to Brookville (last) weekend.”
After a short documentary — a History Channel production available on youtube.com — on one of Harding’s dozens of rescue operations in Vietnam, Harding addressed the junior and senior classes separately.
His primary message to the students in both speeches — Find something you love to do for a living and you’ll never feel like it’s work. And, live with integrity.
“Earning money is not the ultimate of what the job is for. Yes, it’s great to have money to do what you want to do, but it’s so important that you enjoy what you do because you’re going to do a better job of it,” Harding told the seniors.
After his combat flying days were over, Harding spent time in the Air Force’s ROTC program as a teacher.
“When you go looking for something to do with your life, remember that one of the most important things that you have to live by is your integrity,” he said. “You have to have a word that someone trusts you to keep. When I taught high school in ROTC, 14 years in countries all over the world, we made our cadets live by the slogan that they would not lie, cheat or steal or tolerate those who do. That’s something you can take with you and live with the rest of your life.
“I think that it would be just wonderful if we had a nation where are leaders would live by that same rule. They wouldn’t lie to you. They wouldn’t cheat. They wouldn’t steal. Sadly, that’s not the case. We don’t have that right now in our hierarchy. But that’s something we can strive for for ourselves and for those we live around. You should always be accountable for your actions. If you do something, you should take the blame for it if it goes wrong. You’re going to get the credit if it goes right. You should be able to do both.”
Ruthanne Barbazzeni, BAHS principal, more than appreciated Harding’s desire to address part of the high school student body.
“What a wonderful opportunity our juniors and seniors had at Colonel Harding’s presentations Friday morning,” Barbazzeni said. “I was honored to present him to our students as a distinguished graduate of the Brookville Area School District. Colonel Harding shared his wisdom and his encountered life experiences after his high school graduation. His presentation allowed students and community members to connect this hometown boy who got up every morning before school to milk the cows and his journey that led him to becoming a highly honored pilot/instructor in the Air Force.
“I am so happy that our students had this wonderful opportunity to learn about this hometown treasure who graduated with the same BASD diploma that these students will receive when they graduate, and that the message to the students was they too can achieve great things with a strong work ethic and perseverance.”
Harding played football for the then-Red Raiders who won the Southern Conference his senior season in the fall of 1951. With the help of his older brother and Penn State student Gene, Harding was recruited that fall by Penn State football coach Rip Engle and assistant coach Joe Paterno.
Both came to the Harding house, which was on what was Maplevale Farm, the family dairy farm just a few miles away from today’s school campus. The episode he fondly recalled as Engle and Paterno sat on the family’s worn-out couch with bricks serving as one of the four legs, until the coaches got on it and they crashed to the floor.
Harding did wind up attending Penn State and majored in animal husbandry with a minor in English. He also joined the Air Force ROTC while there and it started a connection that lasted the rest of his life.
After playing football for the Nittany Lions and graduating in 1956, Harding turned down a lucrative job offer from International Harvester along with an invitation to try out for the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams. He chose to continue his career in the Air Force.
While he grew up around dairy cows and even spent part of a year before his senior year at BHS as a ranch hand on a cattle farm in Colorado, Harding switched his passion.
“You could say the airplane replaced the cow,” Harding said.
Within six years of leaving Penn State, he not only became an expert pilot but was also an instructor by the time the Cuban Missile Crisis developed in October of 1962. Harding said at least six times he awaited orders to attack, but never received the order.
His two tours of Vietnam brought him plenty of awards, but he made clear that the most rewarding were the rescue missions, including the video the students shared regarding the saving of downed pilot Major Clyde D. Smith.
“When you see what happened in that picture, we flew over 800 missions to rescue one person,” Harding said. “That’s how important a life is. It’s absolutely the most beautiful thing, a human life … Every time we would go in to make a pass to try to destroy an aircraft or artillery that’s shooting at you, you took a chance that you’re going to get shot down yourself. We were willing to do that because life is so important. Life is truly a gift from God,” Harding said.
After reflecting on his experiences, Harding didn’t spare any chance to relate to the students what really matters in life.
“Throughout life, you’re going to make a lot of friends. You may make a few enemies. I wouldn’t worry about enemies,” Harding said. “But remember the friends and keep that in mind. Always remember that time is so important you know you only have so much time in your lives. You have to make use of that time.”