Paying tribute


Lawrence North teacher, junior seek to honor D-Day veteran

By Mark Ambrogi

Lawrence North High School junior Nicole Cordes’ interest in World War II has been driven by two distinct influences.

Her Indian Creek Elementary fifth-grade teacher Steve Hardwick wrote a book called “Duty, Honor, Country: The Memories of Those Who Were There.” Each year, Hardwick puts on a USO show for WWII veterans to enjoy. Cordes took part as a fifth-grader and again last summer, playing the part of Mary Livingston, Benny’s radio partner and wife, from the Jack Benny Program. She plans to continue to participate.

Secondly, her late grandfather, Ralph Simmons, served in the Navy during WWII. Cordes listened to his stories many times but never grew tired of them. Simmons, who died in 2011, was stationed on the shores of Hiroshima in Japan

Lawrence North teacher Rachel Couch and junior Nicole Cordes were selected to participate in Normandy: Sacrifice for Freedom Albert H. Small Student and Teacher Institute in France, by National History Day, a nonprofit organization. The trip is June 20 to July 2, with the first five days in Washington, D.C., before heading to France. The duo are one of 15 teacher-student teams selected across the nation and the only one from Indiana.

The project is to research a Hoosier veteran buried at the American Cemetery, who died as part of the D-Day invasion.

Couch and Cordes selected John J. O’Callahan, a veteran from Indianapolis, and are putting together a website and profile of his life.

They began with very little information outside of his service, his rank and when he died.

“We want to put a face on the person and show that he had a life before his sacrifice for freedom,” Couch said.

O’Callahan, a private in the U.S. Army, was a member of the 501st Parachute Regiment with the 101st Airborne Division. O’Callahan was shot down as he was parachuting, according to their research. They are not certain of his age when he died.

“He was a fireman, he only had two years of high school and he was single,” Cordes said. “He wanted to serve our city by being a fireman and then he served our country.”

O’Callahan’s father died before the war. His mother died in 1946. So far, they haven’t found any living relatives.

“We are trying to find out what their life was like before the war,” Couch said. “The goal is to prepare a eulogy, and when we get to Normandy we will honor that person. I love studying World War II. It seemed an awesome experience, getting to do that prep work beforehand.”

Before leaving for Normandy, the teachers and students will spend time in Washington, D.C., learning about the War Memorials.

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity I felt like,” Couch said.

In her application, Couch said she explained how the experience would benefit her classroom. Cordes wrote an essay about why she wanted to participate.

“My grandfather may not be able to live on but his stories will, and I am the one who carries them,” Cordes wrote in her essay. “This is what I hope to do for many other men who fought in this war. Those WWII veterans don’t need money or gifts, they just need someone to tell their stories, someone who will willingly listen.”

It also likely helped her cause that Cordes is in the French IV class. She visited France with her mother last year.

When Couch asked some students who would want to participate, Cordes jumped at the chance.

“I raised my hand very high because my granddad was a big part of my life for many years,” Cordes said. “Then getting to interact with the veterans at the USO show is very wonderful.”

Cordes learned they had been selected from Couch on the final day of classes before winter break in December.

“She told me ‘We’re going to France’ right before my math exam and I could not focus,” Cordes said.

As part of the project, students must complete selected readings, review video interviews with veterans and engage in online discussions with other participants.

If anyone has information on O’Callahan, please e-mail Couch (

About Nicole Cordes

Personal: Lawrence North High School junior. Turns 17 on May 13. Has a 4.2 grade point average.

Favorite class: Photography.

Activities: Plays clarinet in marching band and pep band.

Career goal: “I’m planning to become a pediatrician.”

Favorite music: “Paramore.”

Favorite TV show: “How I Met Your Mother,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Bones.”

Favorite way to relax: “I dance in my room. I was a dancer for eight years and I like to watch NetFlix and draw.”

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