The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

January/February 2003
 
   
 

The Herrick Scholarship: Honoring An Obligation

BY JIM BELSHAW

 

  Benny Herrick  
  Benny Herrick  

No one knew Benny Herrick was a "natural." Not his parents, not the drama teacher who would become his favorite, not even Benny himself. When he went out for football, theater was not in the picture. Then came a toe injury that ended his football season and created the need to fill the time at Oak Park High School in Kansas City. He took a theater class and fell right into it.

After he graduated in 1966, Herrick planned to attend Southwest Missouri State University to continue his drama studies, but duty nagged at him. America was at war in Vietnam, and he felt the need to do his part. He was 19 years old when he died in Vietnam, his dream of a theater career cut short by the war.

But in his absence through all the intervening years, many others have followed Bennett Herrick's dream, each carrying his name and memory forward.

A year after his death, his parents, Loren and Marge Herrick, wanted to honor his memory. They offered a $1,500 college scholarship in his name to be given to an Oak Park High School drama student. They had no long-term plans for the scholarship. At the time, it was something they simply wanted to do for their son.

"It was selfish," Loren Herrick said. "We did it for ourselves because it made us feel good."

In the spring of 2002, the Herricks sent their 35th Oak Park High School drama student to college.

"Success? We didn't really think about it at all back then," Loren, 81, said. "It was just something we felt compelled to do. For the first five or six years, it was, 'Well, I guess we'll do it again this year.' Finally, it became clear it was going to go on and so we made arrangements to continue it after we're gone."

Benny's death in Vietnam was not the only loss that the war brought to the Herrick's doorstep. Their second son, Dennis, followed in his brother's footsteps, going to Vietnam in 1970. He died there in a non-combat incident.

"No one had the faintest idea that Benny was a natural actor," Herrick said. "We didn't and neither did the school. It turned out he was a natural, and he put the first trophy in Oak Park High School. It was a new school in 1965. He and his partner did a takeout on The Rainmaker in a three-school drama festival. They won. In January of 1966, Benny got the award for best actor at the Missouri state drama festival."

Loren and Marge, known in the Oak Park drama department as "Pa" and "Ma," have reserved seats for all of the school's productions. When they arrive, an outpouring of affection greets them.

When the school considered producing A Piece of My Heart, a play about how the Vietnam experience affected the lives of four women, one of the drama teachers spoke first with the Herricks, concerned that the play's subject matter might be too upsetting to them.

"They said if it was going to upset us, they wouldn't do the play," Loren said. "But if we gave them the okay, they'd go ahead with it. We said, 'Sure, go right ahead and do it. And let us help if you will.' "

In May, well-known Hollywood actor, Jeff Daniels, came to Oak Park High School to honor the Herricks and speak with students. Daniels is a friend of Michigan car dealer and Vietnam veteran John Colone. The Herricks met Colone three years ago at a reunion of Vietnam veterans and families of those killed in the war.

Last year, when Loren called Colone to thank him for sending flowers to Benny's grave, he mentioned an effort of the drama department to raise money for homeless veterans. Colone, who is on the board of directors of Daniels' Purple Rose Theatre Company in Chelsea, Mich., asked Daniels to make an appearance at the school.

"He thought it would be a lot better than just sending a check because this was strictly a drama department thing and Benny was so involved with the theater," Loren said.

The Herricks often hear from former students who have won the scholarship. Some are now teachers themselves. Working in conjunction with VVA Chapter 317, the Herricks have established a fund to continue the scholarship well into the future.

"I know anybody's son is always better than anybody else's, but Benny was a terrific guy," Loren said. "If it hadn't been for Vietnam, his intent was to become either a drama teacher or an actor. But Vietnam came along, and he told me he just didn't think he could apply himself to school feeling the way he did about an obligation to his country. He had good plans for his future, but it just didn't turn out. With the scholarship, we'll still have Benny's memory, the memory of the war, and all of the lives that have been affected by it for so long."

   

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