MOUNT VERNON, Oct 12 — It’s a simple leather briefcase, bearing the inscription “Sgt Alvin C. York” in gold letters.
It belonged to a World War I hero who later founded a school for poor rural children.
When he was drafted in 1917 to go fight in France, York was a 30-year-old farmer with a third grade education.
“He had always lived in Tennessee, in a rural area, was never really exposed to the world,” his grandson, retired army colonel Gerald York, told AFP at his home in Alexandria, Virginia.
“When war came along, he did not know where they were fighting. He didn’t know anything about the people.”
In October 1918, Corporal York became a hero during the Meuse-Argonne offensive, the Allied campaign that finally broke the German army.
Under heavy fire, York killed 25 German soldiers and took more than 100 prisoners during a harrowing mission to infiltrate enemy lines and take out machine gun positions.
He was promoted to sergeant and showered with military honours, including the Congressional Medal of Honour, America’s highest; the Croix de guerre; and the French Legion of Honour.
He received some 50 awards and medals in all, making him one of the war’s most decorated American soldiers.
After the armistice, he remained in France for several months before returning to New York to a hero’s welcome.
He then went back to his home in Jamestown, Tennessee and embarked on another stage in life.
“Because of what he had seen in France, in New York, because he felt his education was a real hindrance to him... he decided that education and better roads were going to be what he wanted for his community,” Gerald York said.
So York created a foundation, and travelled the country with his leather briefcase under his arm, using his fame as a war hero to raise funds for a rural school.
The Alvin C. York Agricultural Institute opened in 1926.
For the first 10 years, even in the midst of the Great Depression, he paid for the teachers, the school buses and the construction of paved roads in the area.
York was a fervent Christian and member of a small pacifist congregation. According to his grandson, shortly before his death in 1964, he said: “What I want to be remembered for is my contribution to education.”
The Alvin C. York Institute, now a public school, still exists today in Jamestown, Tennessee. — AFP