Parents of Fallen Soldier Plant Memorial Tree

Parents of fallen soldier Jeffrey White planted a memorial oak tree May 1 on the front lawn of Nike Elementary School, where he attended kindergarten through fifth grade. From left are Paula White, teacher Jennifer Christensen, Jeffrey White Sr. and Mr. Morris, Paula’s father.

The entire student body of Nike Elementary School sang a rendition of “God Bless the USA” during a tree-planting ceremony May 1 honoring a fallen American soldier who had attended their school not too long ago.

Jeffrey White, 21, was killed April 3 when an IED exploded near his vehicle in Afghanistan.

Students gathered under the school’s covered canopy to watch his parents help plant a memorial tree on the school’s front lawn in his memory.

White attended Nike Elementary from 1995 to 2001.

Most of the children were acquainted with the soldier’s mother, Paula White, who had served as school secretary until April 3.

There was hardly a dry eye in the crowd facing the students, who sang all of the stanzas of the Lee Greenwood version of the song. Their performance surprised even the school music teacher.

“I’d never worked with a group of students this large,” she said.

Men dressed in work boots and bright orange Home Depot T-shirts used their cellphones to snap photos of the children as they sang.

Members of the Catawissa Veterans of Foreign Wars and a Union, Mo., artist stood politely by, waiting for their chance to speak briefly to the soldier’s parents.

Jennifer Christiansen, recently married Nike Elementary special education teacher — Mrs. Ay (her maiden name) to the students — struggled to maintain composure as she introduced each speaker.

“We’re here to plant a peace tree dedicated to a hometown hero,” Christiansen said.

The tree-planting event grew after a chance conversation between Christensen and Cindy Galate, Home Depot’s South County store manager. Galate then spoke with Lucy Crawford, garden department supervisor, and telephoned Steven Esparza, district manager of Home Depot’s eight stores in the St. Louis region to see what they could do to honor the soldier. The trio rounded up some 20 volunteers and brought along two stone and wood benches, four trees, 50 or 60 shrubs worth approximately $2,000 that were planted in minutes following the closing of the formal ceremony.

Esparza thanked the students for allowing the firm to participate in the very personal event, saying emotional connection with a school community, such as Nike is as good as it gets when you’re in the retail business.

“This is something we will share for the rest of our lives,” Esparza said.

Nike kindergarten teacher Claire Johnson called her father Ron Emig forward. Emig, an artist, presented the parents with an oil portrait of their son in his red beret.

Paula and Jeffrey White Sr. shoveled dirt into the hole surrounding the memorial oak that was being planted in memory of their son Jeffrey Jr.

Off to the edge of the lawn, students planted hundreds of daffodil bulbs, part of the Girl Scouts of America (GSA) program to plant 200,000 bulbs in recognition of the GSA’s 100th birthday.