Many of us hear about the death of a classmate long after we graduate from high school.

It is always a sad moment, one in which we reflect on that person and what we remember of him.

Sometimes, recollection of a death returns to us at the most unexpected moments.

For Evalyn Bowman of Skowhegan, memories of one particular student in her Class of 1956 from Montpelier High School in Vermont continue to surface.

His name was William C. Fitzgerald and he was quiet, played sports and couldn’t wait to join the U.S. Navy after he graduated.

In a photograph of her class, Fitzgerald stands stoic in the second row from the top among 88 other graduates wearing caps and gowns in front of the state house in Vermont. Bowman, now 81, remembers the class walked a half mile from the high school that June 61 years ago to stand before the state house to be photographed.

Fitzgerald, often referred to as “Billy” or “Fitzy” by classmates, did join the Navy like his father before him. He was selected for officer training and appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland. Later, he was stationed in Vietnam and was senior U.S. advisor at Coastal Defense Group Sixteen. Their compound was adjacent to the Co Luy hamlet near the delta of the Tra Khuc River about 70 miles southeast of Danang.

Fitzgerald’s compound was attacked by Viet Cong Aug. 7, 1967. As the senior commander, Fitzgerald ordered civilians to retreat within the compound. He remained in the bunker and provided cover fire for people who were evacuating and called for help on a radio while three other defenders escaped. Fitzgerald was then killed in the fight.

“When he died in ’67 it was very sad,” Bowman said Tuesday, while sitting in her Skowhegan kitchen. “It was a shock to all of us. He’d just been married and had three children. The youngest was only 3 weeks old.”

The class historian, Bowman recalled that in honor of her classmate’s bravery, he was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross, the Navy’s highest decoration for valor in combat. He also was awarded the Purple Heart, National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal and the Republic of Vietnam Campaign ribbon bar.

Then a larger honor was conferred upon Fitzgerald, his wife Betty Ann, who still lives in Montpelier, and their family.

And it represents another Maine connection in addition to Bowman’s.

In 1995, a new U.S. Navy ship was named for Fitzgerald — the USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62). Built at Bath Iron Works in Maine, the Arleigh-Burke class destroyer was launched on the Kennebec River. Speakers included then-U.S. Sens. George Mitchell and William Cohen and then-U.S. Congressman Tom Allen, all of Maine.

David Hudson, a classmate of Fitzgerald and Bowman, spoke at the reception. A former Vermont state representative, Hudson now lives in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, but stays in touch with Bowman. Hudson also attended the ship’s commissioning ceremony in Newport, Rhode Island, in October 1995.

“I played football with him in high school — four years of football,” Hudson, 79, said of Fitzgerald in a phone interview from his South Carolina home. “He played center and various other positions. He never gave up. He was always trying. The way he died — he was really a big hero. He actually sent the rest of his men back to the ship and stayed there and fought the Viet Cong and got killed.”

On June 15 this year, Bowman, Hudson and their classmates were again thinking of Fitzgerald when the ship named for him collided with a Philippine vessel off the coast of Japan, killing seven men aboard the American ship. Several crew members, including the commander, were injured.

“I saw it on TV and I couldn’t believe it,” said Bowman, wife of the late Skowhegan veterinarian William Bowman.

“I said, ‘Oh, no — that’s his ship.’ All of us called it his ship — all the kids that I hung out with in high school.”

Bowman and Hudson attended their 60th class reunion last year in Vermont. Classmates typically talk about those who have died and there have been many, but Fitzgerald remains one of the most prominent.

Bowman flips through the pages of her yearbook where the face of Fitzgerald is smiling and his accompanying biography says he will join the Navy after he graduates. “Uncle Sam is a lucky man!” it says.

All these years later, Bowman, Hudson and many others are still remembering Fitzgerald for his loyalty, bravery and dedication in saving the lives of his crew. Those qualities are reflected in a letter to Fitzgerald’s family and friends from Gary M. Holst, commander of the U.S. Navy in 1995 on the occasion of the ship’s launch:

“Today, the USS Fitzgerald inherits the legacy of her namesake. Her charge is to protect her people, which — in addition to her crew — consists of U.S. citizens both at home and abroad. She will steadfastly patrol the world’s oceans to defend freedom and American interests wherever they are threatened.”

The men who died last month on the ship are certainly to be counted among those who worked diligently to carry on Fitzgerald’s legacy.

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter for 29 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]. For previous Reporting Aside columns, go to centralmaine.com.