A Patriotic Salute to John McLemore and All Vietnam Veterans

Photo of John McLemore Award Trophy
John McLemore Award Trophy

Football’s most prestigious honor at Foothill High School, The John McLemore Award, is given in memory of John McLemore who lost his life in Vietnam in 1971. After a recent military service, I felt it would be timely to enlighten readers about John, his award, and the leading role Foothill took to honor all Kern County Vietnam veterans.

Photo of Description of John McLemore Award
Description of John McLemore Award

The John McLemore Award is given by the coaching staff to the player who best exemplifies John’s qualities and attributes on and off the field. Foothill’s first football coach, Harvel Pollard, created this award to honor John’s memory and keep his name and sacrifice alive at FHS. Each McLemore Award winner receives an individual trophy and has his name plate put on the large perpetual trophy.  A laminated photo of John with his FHS/Vietnam resume accompanies the trophy and reads:

“John McLemore was Foothill’s 1964-65 ASB President, an honor student and a three-sport athlete. The John McLemore award was established in 1971 by former Trojan Coach Pollard and his wife Mary Lou, to honor McLemore’s memory by keeping his name alive with this award. Coach Pollard recognized, before John enrolled at Foothill, his leadership skills as well as his family’s support of FHS in its early years. While in his last year of studies at Frenso State, he was drafted into service. Unlike others of his era who burned draft cards or fled to Canada, John felt his duty to serve his country. In the early spring of 1971, John was deployed to South Vietnam where, on March 22, 1971, he was killed by small arms fire in the Quang Tri region of South Vietnam. In 1971, Foothill honored Mark Newbrough as its first recipient of the John McLemore award. Foothill has honored a football player every year since 1971 to preserve the memory of John McLemore.”

The first 1971 winner was Dr. Mark Newbrough, who later was also awarded the Tyack Award as Kern County’s top athlete. The only two-time winner was Dr. Nathan Jacobson, who is the son of long-time FHS teacher “Jake” Jacobson.  Nathan is now an orthopedic surgeon and is the team doctor for the Minnesota Wild NHL hockey team.  The following is a list of winners by year, and their future accomplishments have proven this to be a very elite group.

1971 — Mark Newbrough
1972 — Charles Houghton
1973 — Mike Maggard
1974 — Jeff Houghton
1975 — Dan Zauner
1976 — Ron Magsby
1977 — Gary Parks
1978 — Gilbert Tinoco
1979 — Matt Cross
1980 — Dan Sousa
1981 — Tim Hansen
1982 — Eddie Finkle
1983 — Scott Huley
1984 — Ritchie Grijalva
1985 — Paul Hickey
1986 — Eddie Romero
1987 — Chad Ackerley
1988 — Mike DiMario
1989 — Anthony Felix
1990 — Richard Carmona
1991 — Brad Hansen
1992 — David Beard
1993 — Juan Santos
1994 — Clayton Riley
1995 — Matt Vinson
1996 — Sam Ramirez
1997 — Ryan Meloche
1998 — Nathan Jacobson
1999 — Nathan Jacobson
2000 — Anthony Hernandez
2001 — Miguel Peralta
2005 — Raul Rodriguez
2014 — Samuel Zepeda
2015 — Miguel Dominguez
2016 — Anthony Albarran

(Note: For 2002-2004 and 2006-2013, it is not known whether coaches did not select a winner, or just failed to add the name plate to the perpetual trophy. If any readers are able to verify other winners, please contact me.)

After our involvement in Vietnam ended and the years slipped by, we soon found a new generation of students who knew very little of our role in Vietnam.  Two Foothill teachers, Mike Hopkins and Darlene Sullivan, decided to further educate their students about our military stay in Vietnam.  It was a very unique technique to invite Vietnam veterans to speak to their classes, share experiences and memories, and answer questions.  The students were focused and fascinated, but also saddened to learn that many of these vets had been reluctant to share such stories, or even admit they served in Vietnam.  For many, the war had become unpopular, and thus these men did not return home to the same warm welcome that had greeted WWII vets.

Photo of Kern County Vietnam Monument
Kern County Vietnam Monument

The class decided that their effort and sacrifice should not have been made in vain, and set out to raise money for a local monument that would honor all Kern County Vietnam veterans.  Numerous FHS fundraising projects were started, and soon other schools accepted Foothill’s invitation to join them in these fundraisers as well.  Eventually, over $57,000 was raised and a beautiful Vietnam Monument was erected in front of the courthouse on Truxtun and Chester Ave.

Photo of Kern County Vietnam Monument
Kern County Vietnam Monument

It bears the names of the 114 killed and gives a salute to the over 14,000 Kern County vets who served in Vietnam. The beautiful landscaping and lightning for this monument was done by Foothill teacher Ray Juhl, and his crew.  It proved to be so awesome, that Mr. Juhl received the top Bakersfield Beautiful Award for this work.

But, beyond the Vietnam Memorial, the students also wanted to give the vets the long-overdue welcome home ceremony they never received.

Photo of Mrs. McLemore and Mrs. Nacca with Honor Guard at FHS Vietnam Welcome Home Ceremony
Mrs. McLemore and Mrs. Nacca with Honor Guard at FHS Vietnam Welcome Home Ceremony

This special ceremony was held in a packed FHS gym. An honor guard first escorted Mrs. Ruth McLemore and Mrs. Gay Nacca to the center of the gym. Mrs. Nacca is the mother of former FHS track star Carl Nacca, who lost his life when his helicopter was shot down over the Quang Tri Province on Feb. 20, 1971.

These ladies were followed by a contingent of Vietnam vets……many in their “cammo gear”. Upon hearing the loud standing ovation they were given, some tears could be seen on the cheeks of these battle tested vets.

Photo of Honoring Veterans at the FHS Vietnam Welcome Home Ceremony
Honoring Veterans at the FHS Vietnam Welcome Home Ceremony

Several stayed around after the ceremony to thank the students, saying it was the nicest thing ever done for them, and went a long way toward easing the pain of some bad memories.

I often run into former FHS students/vets when I attend various military ceremonies.  While attending the Class of 1966 50th reunion, all vets were asked to stand, and this provided further evidence just how involved Foothill was in Vietnam.

Before Mrs. McLemore passed away, I was able to present her with bronzed replicas of John’s “dog tags”.  What a wonderful lady, and I witnessed that the pain of losing a son never goes away.  I assured
her that as long as I was alive that the John McLemore Award would be funded and presented. Another former FHS athlete, Mr. Tim Maples, has also generously endowed Foothill with a large sum that will insure college scholarships in John’s memory will be awarded for years to come.

Photo of FHS Students Honoring Vietnam Vets
FHS Students Honor Vietnam Vets

While FHS became very involved in honoring Vietnam veterans, we need to pause and give thanks to all past and current veterans who have/do serve so that we all can enjoy freedom and our way of life. A special shout out to all those John McLemore Award winners, as well as those teachers and students who have invested time, effort — and often sacrifice — to make a difference in the world………you are all so special!!!