Scot Walker '90 May 15, 2017 1:11 PM updated: May 17, 2017 10:29 AM
A group of former Aggie Band members recently met in Spokane, Wash., for an impromptu reunion that turned out to be a special celebration of one of their own.
During the last week of April, 10 comrades from the Aggie Band Class of 1989, all but one of them from A Battery, headed to Spokane, Wash., for the informal reunion. They met in Spokane because that was the home of David Ward, a classmate who could not travel due to a degenerative muscle disease. Since Ward couldn't meet his friends in Aggieland, his friends traveled from around the world to bring the reunion to him in Washington.
Robert Wilson attended the reunion and shared some details of the trip.
The Aggies first gathered for a Friday night reception at Ward's living facility, the Spokane Veterans Home. After Ward graduated in 1989 with a bachelor's in civil engineering, he was commissioned into the U.S. Navy and served as a military officer for more than 20 years—including service in both Gulf Wars—aboard the destroyer USS Oldendorf, guide missile cruisers USS Shiloh and USS Hue City, amphibious assault ship USS Nassau, and on the battle group staff of Carrier Group 6 (USS John F. Kennedy). He also earned a master's degree from the U.S. Naval War College, taught Naval ROTC at Texas A&M and served as a member of the faculty of the Naval War College.
After retiring at the rank of commander, Ward continued working with the Navy as a civilian contractor until shortly after his diagnosis in 2014 with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. ALS is a nervous system disease that weakens muscles and impacts physical function. Baseball player Lou Gehrig and scientist Stephen Hawking are among the more well-known people to have been diagnosed with ALS.
Due to the ALS, Ward had virtually no remaining lung capacity and was losing the ability to move his fingers, but he could still speak and his mind was as sharp as ever. "He became the master of ceremonies" for the reunion, Wilson said, "asking a mix of questions ranging from what we have been up to over the recent years to Corps campusology questions, which he would correct us on when our memories couldn't quite get things in the correct order.
"I have forgotten a lot of campusology, but David recited it all—and schooled all of us that weekend. He remembered it all."
By happenstance, the ALS Association's Evergreen Chapter of Spokane was having a 5k Walk to Defeat ALS the following day, so the Aggies quickly pooled some funds and entered the walk as Team SQUID.
Team SQUID at the ALS charity walk in Spokane.
The team made the charity walk on Saturday while David was in a physical therapy session at the Veterans Administration medical center in Spokane. The whole group then gathered in a meeting room David had reserved for the purpose at the VA.
"David continued his questioning and mastery of all things related to the Corps of Cadets and Texas A&M University in general," Wilson said. Throughout the day, additional Class of '89 Aggie bandsmen joined the reunion via video teleconference—Derrek Hryhorchuk from Kandahar, Afghanistan; Mike Morton from Baghdad, Iraq; Michael McKnight from Washington, D.C.; and David Koonce from Florida. "And all were quizzed just as hard as the rest of us by David."
The group broke for dinner at a local steakhouse that Ward selected. "While we were not kicked out of the establishment, we were somewhat loud and David had a great time," Wilson said. "We returned to the VA, closing out the evening the same way the day began—with a mixture of personal stories and remembering our time together in the Fightin' Texas Aggie Band."
Sunday was a repeat of Saturday, including the video calls with buddies around the world. Ward also wanted to know in great detail what his friends had done with their lives since leaving Texas A&M. "We each took turns telling our life stories to David and the group," Wilson said. "In paraphrasing David's most astute observation of the reunion, he stated that our time at Texas A&M, being in the Corps of Cadets and the Aggie Band, provided us a skill set that enabled us to meet our life's challenges head-on and become successful—each of us in our own right."
The Aggies paid a return visit that night to the same steakhouse, at Ward's request, and were joined this time by his family. The Association of Former Students had equipped Wilson with a cache of branded A&M and Aggie Network swag for the event, and it was distributed to Ward's children, Mayla, named after David's mother, and James, named after Jim Owen, David's "ol' lady" (roommate) for all four of his years in the Corps.
David Ward and James Owen: Class of 1989, Aggie bandsmen, and four-year roommates.
As Sunday evening concluded, Owen led a prayer, with the Aggies gathered around each other with David in the middle, Wilson said. The Aggies departed Spokane on varying schedules, but some were able to have additional visits with Ward on Monday before leaving town.
"Life has a way of happening where you move along to the next moment not knowing what will occur next," Wilson said. "If we had known that this would be our last time to see our friend, we would have never left his side."
In an email to the members of the group, Alan Noell wrote, "We received word that David passed away suddenly last night [May 4]. David has handled his ALS stoically, maintained his humor, and lived his remaining years for his kids. We had a lot of great discussions and stories this weekend, but on the serious side, David eloquently described where he has been with this disease, where's he is at, and where he was headed. David was really looking forward to this weekend, and it meant a lot to him and his family. A parting gift is that he brought us a little closer."
Wilson offered a simple epitaph for his Aggie friend of more than 30 years: "David was the epitome of soldier, statesman, knightly gentleman."
David Earl Ward is survived by his wife, Elke; his children, Mayla and James; his father, Gary (and spouse Lynnette); his sister, Pennee Schmitt '91 (and spouse Michael Schmidt '91); and his niece, Sydney.
He will be buried with military honors at the Washington State Veterans Cemetery on May 19, and Jim Owen will eulogize David in a ceremony to follow. Fellow Aggie bandsman Jeff Starr will play Taps at the funeral. The family requests that donations in lieu of flowers be made to the Evergreen Chapter of the ALS Association; to the Spokane Veterans Home Betterment Fund; or as a memorial gift to The Association of Former Students.