Last year, Carla Cotton’s sixth grade class at All Saints’ Episcopal Day School wrote letters to veterans that were participating in an Honor Flight Network trip. The Honor Flight Network sponsors veterans on all-expense-paid, three-day trips to the US capital to see the war memorials there.
On the return flight, veterans receive packets of mail from family, friends and volunteers.
Cotton made an assignment for her class of picking a name of a veteran on the trip and writing them a letter. Not one student picked Jim Mende. It’s possible that his World War II job in the US Army was warehouse manager. That may not have seemed as exciting to a sixth-grader as an infantryman or fighter pilot.
Cotton wasn’t going to let Mende go without a letter, so she wrote one to him herself. Later, someone in another class would also write him a letter.
When the veterans landed back home at Sky Harbor International Airport on March 18, 2016, the All Saints’ sixth graders were there to greet them with posters and cheers.
Mende wrote back to Cotton, and she wrote him again. She isn’t sure why she took the step to write the second letter except that she felt that there was “something super special about him.”
The teacher and veteran became pen pals writing from a school in central Phoenix to a home in Sun City West.
Cotton wrote to Mende about her students and what they were studying. She mentioned the naturalization ceremony they held every year in the school gymnasium. When he replied that he had never attended one, she invited him to come.
In May, Mende drove to the school to attend the ceremony. After the ceremony, he sat in Cotton’s three history classes and told the students about his experiences in WWII.
Mende served in the US Army from 1943 until 1946. He was a technical sergeant with the 586th Signal Depot Company, serving in New Guinea, the Philippines, Japan and the Pacific Theater.
He had no trouble talking with the students despite the years that separated them. “It was clear on that day that Jim loved the kids and they loved him,” Cotton recalled.
Mende remembers when a Civil War veteran spoke to his class in school. Mende thought, “That guy is so old.” He said, “Now I’m that old guy!”
Mende gave Cotton an American flag he had purchased while on the Honor Flight. It had once flown over Ft. McHenry. He told Cotton he wanted her to have it in her classroom. Now, each student takes turns taking the flag home and writing an essay about what it means to live in the USA. Cotton collected each essay in a journal and sent a copy to Mende.
Mende went with the class when they visited the state capital. He joined in on the scavenger hunt they had.
At Christmastime, Mende attended the school Christmas performance. During the classroom gift exchange, he mentioned that his brother had a teddy bear, but Mende never had one. One of the students made sure that Mende received a teddy bear.
He visited with the class on his 92nd birthday on January 5th. Cotton purchased donuts. On January 10th, he returned to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. day and to talk about the Great Depression with the class. He told about how his mother had to find a job because his father had lost his. He and his brother were in charge of taking care of the house. He said that it was hard, but they did what was necessary.
One of the students said that Mende taught her to always stay hopeful.
On January 11, Mende fell and hit his head hard. A CT scan showed bleeding on the brain. When Cotton went to visit him at the hospital, he did not recognize her.
Two days later, she visited him again, and they talked about the students and how much hope they gave him for the future. Cotton left, hopeful that Mende would be up and around soon, but maybe with a walker to avoid falls, azcentral reported.
On January 21, at 11:11 pm, Mende passed away. The students held a memorial service. Many students cried, including the boys, because Mendes had told them, “Boys don’t cry, but men do.”