With the 50th anniversary of John Polefka’s combat death in a Vietnamese province just west of Saigon approaching, it seemed that the number of people who still remembered the lanky Phoenixville youth with a nice smile and good sense of humor had dwindled to a handful.
Among those who have always honored his memory is Kirsten Paxson, Polefka’s 45-year-old niece, who considers the uncle she never knew a “guardian angel” and has held onto all the letters he sent home from Vietnam.
So Paxson was surprised and thrilled to learn that 1968 alumni from Phoenixville Area High School had established a John A. Polefka Memorial Scholarship Fund to aid students joining the military or planning to study criminal justice.
“I was like, ‘Wow, that’s pretty remarkable’ — I was floored,” said Paxson, the daughter of Polefka’s late sister, his only sibling, upon learning of the fund. Now in its second year, it has raised nearly $18,000 from donors who attended school with Polefka in the Chester County steel town during the 1950s and ‘60s.
Chas Kopp, the 1968 Phoenixville grad who spearheaded the effort, said alumni going to their 50th reunion in 2018 thought it was a great idea to honor their classmate — although Polefka dropped out of school and never earned his diploma — and the sacrifices that young people from their generation made in Southeast Asia.
The scholarship fund raised $13,000 in its first year, and aided or recognized six 2018 graduating seniors, including two $2,000 scholarships to students planning to study criminal justice, a pledge of $500 stipends to three who enlisted in the Marine Corps, and a special award to grad Caroline Turner, headed to the U.S. Naval Academy.
Kopp said the fund has brought in $4,000 to $5,000 more this year, and the committee plans a second round of awards this month, following an appreciation luncheon last week for all seniors enlisting in the military. He said Polefka was the "only guy … killed in Vietnam that was from our class.”
Officials don’t know exactly how many Phoenixville young men were killed during the Vietnam War, but say six residents are listed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington. It’s believed as many as 13 members of the high school’s 335-student Class of 1968 served in the conflict.
Gerri Wegrzynowicz — Polefka’s aunt, who lives upstate in Warrior Run, and who remembers him from a summer he spent with her and her five children — recalls that neither she nor Polefka’s mom wanted him to enlist or to leave for Vietnam in 1968, a couple of years after he left school. “I was a little bit upset about that at that time,” she said.
Polefka’s unit — part of the First Battalion of the Fifth Cavalry Regiment — was attacked near Binh Long, and he was killed on Aug. 31, 1969. The Chester County corporal was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart.
“He was in Vietnam a very short time when he was killed,” said Wegrzynowicz, recalling details such as his open casket and the military escort that brought his body home. “I still feel sad occasionally thinking about them — he was so young, all those young men. …”
Paxson said her mother, Charmaine, who was two years ahead of Polefka in Phoenixville schools, was close to her brother and spoke of him frequently when she was growing up — so much so that Paxson gave her daughter the middle name “Arn,” the same as his. Also, Paxson’s twin brother is named John after his late uncle.
“What my mom told me is, he was funny, he was quiet, he was a prankster,” said Paxson, a high school English teacher in Berks County. And he was always something of a presence — someone who Paxson felt had somehow helped her survive a car crash in which she suffered a broken neck around the time of her mother’s 2005 death from pancreatic cancer.