Elizabeth Whitwell’s father died of cancer in January, but a surprise at Friday’s Spring Hill High School graduation ceremony aimed at helping her feel the spirit of the Marine was with her.
“I couldn’t think of anything that would be more significant to her as far as like gifts or anything like that,” Donna Whitwell, Elizabeth’s mother, said before Friday evening’s ceremony at LeTourneau University’s Belcher Center. “I just thought it would be really symbolic and kind of like her dad would be there with her.”
Donna Whitwell said her daughter was grief-stricken by the death of her father, who served in Vietnam. Elizabeth had mentioned the graduation wouldn’t be the same without him there, her mother said.
So Donna Whitwell reached out to Adam Zurn with the Longview recruiting station and asked if any Marines would be willing to stand in her husband’s place at the graduation.
“(Donna) called me one day and just was talking about her daughter’s graduation coming up and explained the case of her dad and everything,” Zurn said. “And we just talked about how it would be a good idea for someone to be there sort of as a representation of (Elizabeth’s) dad.”
Zurn talked to the other recruiters at the station and realized Staff Sgt. Heather Withnell already had met Elizabeth at a recruiting session at Spring Hill High School.
Zurn said Withnell remembered Elizabeth because she had come up to the recruiting table and told her about her father being a Marine. He said he thought Elizabeth would appreciate seeing Withnell at the ceremony, because the two already made a connection.
“We just thought it’d be a good idea to honor her father as a Marine and just kind of be there as support,” Zurn said. “It’s a memorable moment, and it also just kind of reinforces what Marines do for each other – even though we’ve literally never met her father, just honoring him for everything he’s done to raise her and support her and get her to where she is.”
Donna Whitwell said she hoped the presence of Withnell would make her daughter happy and feel as if her father was there in spirit.
“We were wanting and hoping that he could have been here,” she said. “He had told the doctor he wanted to make it to her graduation, but he didn’t.
“I’m praying that she feels like her dad is able to see her graduate, that his spirit and whatnot is there – his legacy. It will be like her dad’s there watching.”
© Copyright 2017, Longview News-Journal, Longview, TX.