WATSONVILLE — Richard Montalvo was born and raised in Watsonville, and graduated from Watsonville High School in 1967.
Robert Swinn lives in Scotts Valley, but his parents were born in Aromas and Freedom.
Both men have made it their mission to care for monuments in Watsonville bearing the names of veterans they knew.
Montalvo graduated in the midst of the Vietnam War, and like many young men he signed up for the U.S. Military.
Five decades later, he is still here. He has been working at his alma mater for 24 years, currently as campus supervisor.
But 16 of those from Watsonville High were killed during that war, and a large marble monument in the center of the school’s quad bears their names.
Montalvo has tasked himself with honoring their memories by raising the flag every day. On Memorial Day, he honors the men by raising it to half-staff.
“Every day I put the flags up in front of the school and think of them,” he said. “Because they didn’t have to serve but they did.”
Montalvo said he served in the U.S. Marine Corps 5th Marines Amphibious Recon Division. Before he was deployed overseas, however, a horse he was riding fell on top of him, temporarily paralyzing him. That delayed his training and stopped his overseas deployment.
Montalvo still gets choked up when he talks about the men, many of whom were his friends.
“All of these kids, I either lived with or played with or partied with,” he said.
He met Rocky Yukio Hirokawa during their freshman year, and took years of karate classes together.
Eddie Dean Gant, he said, was a “farm boy” with whom he took agriculture classes.
He got to know Leonard Ray White when the two got into a fistfight over a long-forgotten disagreement.
“I miss them,” he said. “I’ve had 50 years that they didn’t have. They had hopes and dreams like every one else.”
As a child, Swinn said he remembers driving by the Grove of Remembrance in Freedom, where Freedom Boulevard forms a “Y” with Buena Vista Drive.
There, several veterans are memorialized.
Later as an adult he noticed the grove was beginning to look somewhat unkempt.
And so the Vietnam veteran decided to make a trip there periodically with a weed whacker and other tools to do what he could to keep the place clean and neat.
It wasn’t until much later that Swinn learned that one of the monuments bears the name of his great-uncle, who was killed in World War I. This he learned from his parents and his grandmother, who kept a picture of her brother.
That gave an added sense of importance to his maintenance trips, he said.
“I just hated to see that no one took care of it,” he said. “Somebody ought to do something to make sure someone remembers. I just saw a need and had a little spare time.”