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D-Day Commemoration to Include Pinellas Student Choir

There will be many tributes and memorial services over the next week to mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day. Among those marking the historic battle will be 31 young voices from Pinellas County.

Their East Lake High School choir was invited to travel to France to sing as part of the commemoration. The choir leaves this Sunday, June 8, 2014, and will perform several concerts next week in France.

Inside the choir classroom is a bulletin board covered with photos of France. There’s also a newspaper that dates back to June 1944 with the headline: INVASION – in bold red letters.

Choir director Robert Knabel has spent the last 15 months preparing his choir for the trip.

“One concert is going to be a 20 minute sacred concert on the steps of the Notre Dame Cathedral and that’s an honor,” Knabel said.

But he said the most special concert will be performed next week at the cemetery of U.S. troops that overlooks Omaha Beach.

“The kids are going to have some time and they’re going to be allowed to walk down the bluff to the actual beach where those soldiers died,” Knabel said.

Knabel enlisted the help of Advanced Placement history teacher Alan Kay to give students a better understanding of the significance of D-Day.

“There are two reasons we’re doing this. The first is to make that connection between this generation and the generation we’re losing so quickly and to have the kids understand what sacrifice is about,” Kay said. “And the second part  is just because D-Day itself is such an amazing story.”

Kay also has a personal reason for his involvement. His daughter Jamie is a member of the choir that practiced three times a week for a year and raised $164,000 to pay for their trip.

“I think the most successful fundraiser was when we sold Yankee candles,” Jamie Kay said. Her grandfather served in the Army but was not involved in the war.

But two of the choir members had family members in the historic battle.

“I had a few of my relatives in the D-Day invasion. Thankfully, all of them survived,” Stephanie Hamilton said.

One of her great uncles was a pilot delivering paratroopers over Normandy when his plane was shot down, crash-landed and he broke his back. He was taken prisoner and remained a prisoner until the end of the war. Hamilton’s other great uncle was a captain in the infantry and among the first troops to land on Utah Beach.

The full rendition of "A Tribute to Friendship," arranged by choir director Robert Knabel and performed by the East Lake High School Choir. Knabel created the song that blends the national anthems of the United States and France into one musical work to mark the 50th anniversary of D-Day.

The choir will perform sacred music, some patriotic songs and a special piece of music arranged by. Knabel. It’s an arrangement of the U.S. and French national anthems called A Tribute to Friendship.

And while Knabel didn’t have a relative on the beaches for D-Day, his son just graduated from college and ROTC and is now serving. So above the D-Day newspaper in his classroom, hangs a blue star flag indicating he has family is serving.

Bobbie O’Brien has been a Reporter/Producer at WUSF since 1991. She reports on general news topics in Florida and the Tampa Bay region.
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