Chris Hardej stands in front of a patriotic-themed raced car of Mike and Josh Vander Molen.
For several years, Lynnville-Sully Language Arts teacher Kevin Johnson has invited guests into his classroom to recount personal stories from the 9/11 attacks as he guides middle school students through a unit of study on that fateful day and the leadership that emerged. Last week, Johnson welcomed to Lynnville-Sully 9/11 survivors Gordon Huie and Chris Hardej, world-renowned speakers who share very different experiences from 9/11.
Huie, a former orthopedic surgeon, was enroute to a hospital near Chinatown to work on a research paper when the attacks occurred. Once he realized the depth of the incident, he immediately headed to the nearest hospital where he knew his medical expertise would be of value. Huie is a “triple survivor” given he survived the attacks, served as a first responder, and also lost his sister who was in the North Tower. This year marks Huie’s second sharing his story with the L-S community.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Hardej was on the 82nd floor of the North Tower where he worked. Hardej made it down the stairs and away from the immediate area just as the South Tower collapsed. Hardej, who has served with the Air Force and National Guard, was deployed to the Persian Gulf just two and a half weeks after the attacks. Both men say sharing their stories not only gives insight on the tragedy but helps them heal as they have daily reminders of the 9/11 event that forever shaped history.
The local speaking engagements started upon their arrival early on Wednesday, Sept. 20, when Huie and Hardej met with Newton firefighters and took time to honor those who had fallen by visiting the 9/11 memorial in Newton. At Lynnville-Sully, the patriotic-themed race cars of Mike and Josh Vander Molen were on display in the parking lot to serve as a welcome to the 9/11 survivors.\
According to Johnson, Huie and Hardej spent Wednesday afternoon speaking to L-S fourth graders and middle school students. After school, Hardej met with the L-S high school football team and emphasized the importance of leadership and teamwork.
During a brief break between speaking engagements, the two New Yorkers got a taste of harvest in the Midwest by taking a combine ride. Huie, who visited L-S last year, was fascinated by the combines he saw in the fields last fall. Mike Vander Molen, who was instrumental in getting the race cars set up at the school, made connections with local farmers and hooked the two 9/11 survivors up with a short ride in a combine this visit. Later that night, the speakers shared with youth group members at Sully Community Church how they turned to their faith on that fateful day and continue to draw strength from their faith as they deal with the effects from 9/11 still today.
The next day, the duo was able to speak with L-S high schoolers, eighth graders, and fifth graders. They even connected virtually with Grinnell students thanks to the help of Sabrina Edsen, L-S third-grade teacher. After school, Huie and Hardej shared their messages of leadership with the L-S volleyball and cross-country teams.
The final session featuring the New Yorkers was a public event the community was invited to at Sully Community Church on Thursday evening, Sept. 21. Johnson reports the public event was well attended and also livestreamed so people could join from their homes.
Before wrapping up their time in Iowa, Johnson joined Huie and Hardej for a trip to Earlham on Friday morning, Sept. 22. There, the group teamed up for another 9/11 presentation with Diogenes Ayala, Emergency Management Director for Madison County. Ayala has worked with Johnson as part of the 9/11 unit of study the past two years and wanted to share the message with Earlham middle school and high school students. They also spoke at a community event in Earlham before making the long journey back to New York.