Monday, Jun 24, 2019

Shirt bonds hero to Harvard

Joe McLachlan can still wear the shirt that was signed by more than 100 students and teachers from Central School when he returned from Desert Storm. COURTESY PHOTO

Men keep old T-shirts for all kinds of reasons. Many times it is to let the world know they are a fan and have someone they revere.

Joe McLachlan’s treasured shirt takes an about-face as it was presented to him for being one of the town’s heroes after his return from Desert Storm in 1991.

The USA symbol is on the front of the shirt, and Central School Dad is on the back. The shirt is covered with more than 100 signatures of children and adults thanking him for his service.

McLachlan was born in 1965 in Waterloo, Iowa, and attended Eastern Illinois University.

He and his roommate, Nike, decided to drop out of school as sophomores and join the Marines, thanks to a convincing Marine recruiter.

“My roommate and I left college in 1989 and joined up on the buddy system at Waukegan Marine Reserve, since Vietnam had just ended and no one knew where they would be deployed,” McLachlan said.

McLachlan’s unit was trained for jungle warfare and also was given cold weather training.

He married his wife, Lisa, one week before deploying.

“On Jan. 1, 1991, we stepped off the plane in Saudi Arabia on the way to Iraq,” he said. “I stepped onto the sand, felt the oppressive heat, looked around and said to myself, ‘Well, Happy New Year, Joe!’ What a reality check that was. It was more surreal than real for we had no desert training. This was a huge shock.”

Meanwhile, Lisa and her 8-year-old daughter, Jennifer, moved in with Joe’s mother in Harvard. They knew no one else in town.

While telling his story, McLachlan gave much credit to the First Presbyterian Church of Harvard and its Family Support Group for reaching out to his wife and daughter and caring for them. The church also sent many care packages overseas to him. “And they didn’t even know who I was,” he said.

The Marines were told there would be a high mortality rate in Iraq, and many would not come home. McLachlan was fortunate to return home April 4, 1991. He spent 91 days in Iraq.

As he was preparing to return, his wife told him, “You’ve got to meet the people in this town of Harvard. They are amazing!”

“Central School made a great effort to be careful and supportive of the students whose dads were away at war,” said retired teacher Kathleen Robson.

After returning home but still in Waukegan decompressing, McLachlan received an invitation from Central School to visit the school for a day. His daughter was in second grade at Central at the time.

“A Harvard business owner paid for a limousine to take me from Waukegan to Harvard, and my mom and wife tied yellow ribbons around many trees from Streit Road to Central School,” he said.

There was a hero’s welcome awaiting him at the school. McLachlan said, “Before I left I knew two individuals. Now a whole town was there with an outpouring of love for my family and me.”

Invited to speak at an assembly at Central that day, he said, “It was so comforting. There were so many children with nothing but love in their eyes.”

“I was so excited to have my dad at my school. The kids said to me, ‘That’s your dad? He was in a war,’” said his daughter, Jennifer McLachlan Camp.

“He came in uniform that day,” said Robson, “and it was so impressive; he answered the kids’ questions with care. He was one of the first [Harvard] dads to come home from Iraq, and that touched us at Central.”

“For a few years following, McLachlan went to Central and did a veterans program for assembly,” said Camp.

Apparently, the idea and enthusiasm behind the shirt started in Camp’s second-grade class, taught by Mrs. Kayes.

The school wanted to give McLachlan a “welcome home and thank you” gift, and the idea of everyone signing a shirt was decided upon, and it was presented to him at the assembly.

More than 100 signatures of students and teachers adorn the shirt and are still legible 23 years later.

Not long ago, McLachlan, who teaches Spanish at Richmond-Burton High School, needed a patriotic outfit for a pep rally and wanted something more than a red, white and blue tie. It was then he remembered the long tucked-away shirt given to him by Central School.

“The shirt doesn’t fit like it used to, but I wore it to the pep rally,” he said. “ In September, I wore it to a Harvard High School football game and bumped into several people who said, ‘I remember that shirt. I signed it!’”

McLachlan hopes to meet many more who signed the shirt for him.

“It’s not what I did but what the town people did that made this memorable,” he said. “Our family (Jennifer, and Joe and Lisa’s children John and Paige) was thinking of moving but chose to stay in Harvard. How could we leave a church and town like we have here?”