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This Philly high school lost 64 grads in Vietnam. Now it will have a new life | Ronnie Polaneczky

Thomas Edison High School lost more graduates in the Vietnam War than any other high school in the country. "It was like we lost our protectors," says Dana Swift Plummer.

Dana Swift Plummer, with a portrait of her brother Jake and a collection of the military military medals he was awarded.
Dana Swift Plummer, with a portrait of her brother Jake and a collection of the military military medals he was awarded.Read moreRONNIE POLANECZKY

As she sifts through dozens of letters her brother Jake wrote from Vietnam, Dana Swift Plummer describes the moment she learned he had been killed in action.

She was 17 and sound asleep in her family's North Philly home when her mother's screams woke her on an early May morning in 1970.

"I bolted straight up and ran to the steps," she says. "I looked down and saw two soldiers. They told my mom they needed to talk to my father. He was on the early shift at the ball-bearing factory, so my mother called the plant and said my dad needed to come right away. But she knew my brother was dead. She kept screaming, 'My baby! My baby!'

"It took my dad 45 minutes to get home, taking two buses. The soldiers said, 'Mr. Swift, we are here to inform you of the death of your son.' My dad froze in shock. He didn't cry until after Jake's viewing, two weeks later. He went in the bedroom, closed the door and wailed in a way I had never heard in my life."

James "Jake" Swift Jr., 21, the oldest of four children, died on April 27, 1970, when his vehicle was hit with rocket fire in Binh Dinh province. The explosion blew off his left arm and leg and the back of his head.

"I've never stopped grieving," says Plummer, 65 who lives in West Oak Lane with her husband, Irving. "He was the ideal big brother. He was big and strong yet kind and generous. He bought me my first high heels with money from his paper route, because my parents couldn't afford them."

But Plummer didn't lose just one brother in the Vietnam War, she says.

She lost 64 of them.

Jake was a 1967 graduate of then all-male Thomas Alva Edison High School, then at 700 W. Lehigh Ave. Its sister school was Kensington High, all-female at the time, which Dana attended. To the Kensington girls, she said, the Edison boys were like honorary siblings.

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By the time the war ended, 64 Edison graduates had been killed in Vietnam, a staggering 10 percent of the 648 Philadelphia deaths from the war.

"It felt like we were losing our protectors," says Plummer.

In 2002, Edison relocated to Second and Luzerne Streets, and the massive complex fell into neglect. One of the buildings – nicknamed "the castle" for its turreted, gargoyle-adorned central tower – was destroyed in a 2011 fire (the site is now a shopping center). The other, a four-story annex, has been a vandalized blight on the neighborhood.

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That will change in June 2019 when the annex reopens as an apartment building whose 66 units will house low-income tenants, with preference given to veterans who will have access to a host of on-site services provided by the Veterans Multi-Service Center.

Its name: the Edison 64 Veterans Community, in memory of the men who never made it home from the Indochina peninsula.

 "It's like we've come full circle," says Plummer.

Philadelphia has no shortage of lovely memorials to its war dead. But they're static. While they may stir feelings in those who bother to  read the explanatory plaques attached to the shrines, they're mostly background scenery in the daily show of a busy city.

In contrast, Edison 64 will be a monument-in-action that not only memorializes the very members of the military who once strode its halls but honors their sacrifice by helping modern-day veterans who have struggled in the aftermath of war.

I can't think of a better use for the building.

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Edison 64 is the product of a $25 million public/private partnership between Mosaic Development Partners, Orens Brothers Real Estate, and the Veterans Multi-Service Center. It's financed with low-income federal housing tax credits awarded by the state Housing Finance Agency and with grants from the Federal Home Loan Bank Board and Home Depot (among others).

"The building will connect the past with the present in an important way," says VMC executive director Tim Williams, a retired U.S. Army Special Forces colonel. "This country treated our Vietnam veterans badly when they came home. I'm proud that a building so closely connected to the Vietnam War will be used to care for soldiers in the way every veteran deserves."

The project thrills Darryrl Johnson, a 1972 Edison grad who remembers the school principal announcing over the public-address system the names of the latest war deaths. Students would stop for a moment of silence, he says.

"After a while, we were thinking, 'Gosh, the names are piling up,' " says Johnson, a one-man Edison historian who helped research a new book by local author Richard Sand called Edison 64 — A Tragedy in Vietnam and at Home, which goes on sale Monday (partial proceeds will benefit veteran causes). "I hope the new building will keep them from being forgotten."

Me, I hope the spirits of those young men fill the repurposed classrooms they once called home, as vets in need find new homes of their own.

For general information about Edison 64 or about how to access veterans services, contact the Veterans Multi-Service Center at 215-923-2600.