Chris Rosenblum | Remembering a fallen son from Centre Hall

Long ago, Donald Ray Lucas might have sat behind the wheel of an old Ford or Chevy and barreled down this stretch of state Route 144.

Maybe he thought about a cheeseburger and fries ahead or an upcoming date. Perhaps, as the Temptations or the Beatles poured out of the radio, he pondered his future.

And while the fields and farmhouses whizzed by, maybe he worried about a war and a draft taking boys like him away.

Lucas ended up a private first class in the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division.

On Jan. 12, 1969, he wound up dead.

During ground combat in Quang Nam province of South Vietnam, a grenade explosion killed the 20-year-old C Company rifleman.

Forty-five years later, a tribute could be coming.

House Bill 2409, introduced this summer by state Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Bellefonte, proposes renaming state Route 144 from Old Fort near Centre Hall to Potters Mills the “PFC Donald Ray Lucas Memorial Highway.”

The bill could be approved as soon as Monday, clearing it to advance to the Senate.

Jim Hironimus, an Air Force Vietnam War veteran in Coburn who grew up in Penns Valley, started the ball rolling.

According to his research, Lucas was the only Centre Hall resident killed in the war.

“Don was not a close friend of mine,” Hironimus wrote to state Rep. Mike Hanna, D-Lock Haven. “He was just a guy who liked to play ping pong at lunch time in Penns Valley High School. He gave his life for his country and I feel it is time to honor his sacrifice to his nation.”

Hironimus then asked Hanna for help in renaming the highway.

“It seems like this should have been done over 40 years ago,” Hironimus wrote. “I cannot understand why it has not.”

Hanna forwarded the request to Benninghoff, whose district includes the road in question. Benninghoff trusted Hironimus’ research and paperwork.

“Jim is a real stickler for these kind of things,” he said.

The idea of paying tribute to Centre Hall’s only fallen son from the war resonated with him.

“I thought it would be only befitting to honor him in some way,” Benninghoff said.

Veterans hold a special place in his heart.

His father, John Benninghoff, now 88, served in the Navy during World War II. An M1 rifle he acquired from a shipboard swap is among his son’s most treasured possessions.

As the Vietnam War raged, Kerry Benninghoff was a child, but at the urging of their mother, he and his siblings wrote letters to a family friend in the Navy and the conflict.

At his Half Moon Hill house in Bellefonte, Benninghoff flies an American flag that belonged to his father on Flag Day, Memorial Day and Veterans Day, proudly letting it ripple atop the highest flag pole around.

When he speaks publicly about veterans, he reminds audiences that “poor” is a nation without heroes but “shameful” is one that has them but forgets.

He wants Lucas to be remembered.

A sign dedicating a highway would work.

“Frankly, I’d rather see that than an elected official’s name,” Benninghoff said.

Some day, he hopes, a young driver motoring along state Route 144 will read the tribute and be moved to learn more about the Vietnam War and the scorn many of its veterans faced upon returning home.

It would be nice, he thinks, if the sign serves as a reminder of the men and women in uniform daily risking their lives around the world in service of their country.

But he’ll settle for a family’s heartache, a community’s loss, not fading from memory.

Donald Ray Lucas’ grave lies at Centre County Memorial Park. His name also can be found at Panel W35, Line 77 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

If the state legislators do their part, they’ll ensure Lucas is memorialized for all to see, on the road to his hometown — and they’ll reinforce a piece of wisdom from Benninghoff’s mother.

She always told him it was never too late to apologize or say thank you.