CLINTON — Benton Elementary School won’t be changing its name.

In a 7-4 vote, the School Administrative District 49 board of directors voted Thursday night to reject a controversial proposal to rename the school after hometown Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. Brian L. Buker, who died while serving in Vietnam.

Board members made the decision during a regular meeting at the Clinton Elementary School gymnasium, in front of more than 70 citizens, school staff, students and several Buker family members. Many speakers offered emotional speeches for nearly an hour before the vote was held, touching on familiar themes of community identity and military sacrifice.

The school board’s action came after residents at the annual Benton town meeting March 26 held an advisory vote and also said no to the name change, 45-22.

School board member Kara Kugelmeyer, who said minutes before the vote she still hadn’t made up her mind, ultimately voted in favor of the name change.

“At the heart of the issue is the emotion we bring to the attachment of a name,” Kugelmeyer said. “I’m very torn, but no matter what, we do a disservice to our community if we do not teach about this issue. Honor falls short if people don’t understand what’s in a name.”

The biggest factor for board member Richard Spear was the fact that the Lawrence High School library had already been named after Buker, because his medals were donated by the family and now displayed there. Spear announced he would vote against the name change.

“I’d like to know if anyone thought, if the school was renamed, would the memorabilia and medals be turned over to the former Benton Elementary School?” Spear said. “I don’t think that would be right, or an honor, to any of the people concerned.”

Several of Buker’s relatives spoke passionately.

Brother Vic Buker came forward in his wheelchair to speak even after the school board cut off public comment.

“If it was money, it would be changed,” he said, referring to schools named after financial benefactors. “But we’re not talking about money. We’re talking about blood.”

Buker angrily concluded: “I don’t believe my brother’s name ought to go on that school, because I don’t think that school is worthy of his name.”

Buker’s sister, Peggy Buker Hunnewell, noted that she and her brother attended Benton Elementary and it didn’t hold nearly as much meaning to them as attending Lawrence High School in Fairfield.

“If you named it after him, you’d have something to teach the children, which should be taught in the schools anyway,” she said. “I’m not saying this just because he’s my brother. Once I found out what the Medal of Honor meant years ago, I took appreciation of it. The guy gave up his life for you folks. If that’s not a contribution, I don’t know what is.”

Buker grew up in Benton and graduated from Lawrence High School. He died in 1970 while serving in Vietnam. Buker’s platoon was on a mountain in southern Vietnam on April 5, 1970, when they came under fire. Buker, 20 at the time, charged through a hail of gunfire and destroyed an enemy bunker with hand grenades. He was shot, but he crawled forward to destroy a second bunker before he was mortally wounded.

Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty proposed the name change after Buker’s family donated his medals to the high school this fall.

But many people have said they are attached to the Benton school’s name and don’t want it changed.

Most staff, students and parents who responded to a school survey said they were opposed to the name change, while the elementary school’s student body also voted during a mock election to keep the current name.

The school board asked for the advisory vote at the annual town meeting to gauge public opinion. Many residents who spoke at the meeting said they thought Buker’s service should be honored, but they didn’t think renaming the elementary school was the best way to do that.

Liberty, an Army veteran, made a final pitch before the school board. Saying his two daughters graduated from Benton Elementary, Liberty asked the school board to focus on what’s important.

“The question I have is how will renaming the school diminish the quality of instruction, in school pride?” Liberty asked. “Let’s focus on curriculum instruction, teachers. That’s the important piece.”

Liberty said there are 262 Maine schools named after people, so the practice is not uncommon.

“You can say, ‘I respect his honor and appreciate his sacrifice,'” Liberty said, “but, but, but.” He let the word hang in the air.

Several teachers, parents and even elementary students spoke against the name change.

“I am very sympathetic to any service member, but there are a lot of service members who come through this school,” said parent Kathie Dunphy, who opposed the change. “Are we going to change the name again if somebody else happens to get the Medal of Honor?”

Resident Charles Kent, a former town selectman, said his research showed that in 1957, the town of Benton built the school for $95,000. Kent argued the school should keep its name because the townspeople gave their time and money to build the school.

Veteran and family friend Joel Lavenson challenged the board to change the school’s name because it’s a “rare opportunity to honor the word ‘honor.'”

“Make it a code for the school,” he said. “It could be part of the culture and an exciting adventure. And ‘honor’ could become synonymous with Benton. What better mentor could you have than ‘honor’ for your kids?”

Benton Elementary teacher Anne Gage opposed the change, but said the months-long debate has been beneficial by making the community more aware of Buker’s service and sacrifice.

But school teacher Kathy Burkhart said she’s been concerned with “judgmental remarks” against those who want to keep the school’s name the same. She said some had been called “unpatriotic” and “unaware of what heroism is.”

“Other teachers don’t have the right to their opinion?” she said. “I am deeply thankful for all veterans.”

Following the board meeting, Liberty said “this was only phase one” and he and others would next propose a monument or memorial of some kind, perhaps at Lawrence High School.

Note: An earlier version of this story misidentified Kara Kugelmeyer.

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