The Army general thought his visit would be a one-time deal: He would go to the school, read a story and say good-bye.
But something magical happened that Major Gen. Vincent Boles didn’t expect.
A special connection was sparked when he volunteered to be a celebrity reader in 2003 for a second-grade class at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School in Bettendorf.
He became the students’ role model.
He inspired their teacher, Vinnie Smith, and parents.
And to Boles, those little ones started to feel like the children he and his wife “were never blessed to have,” he said.
“They’re very special,” he said. “They really are.”
So, the major general — who was in charge of the Army Field Support Command on Arsenal Island at the time — visited the parochial school regularly that school year.
When Boles shipped out to serve a stint in Kuwait and Iraq at the height of the war, he kept in touch with Smith’s classroom of second-graders through letters and e-mails.
Then, soon after the school year ended, Boles was promoted to work at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., as the Army’s assistant deputy chief of staff for logistics. Even after the move, Boles kept in touch, visiting the children again in 2005.
He promised this: If he was still in the Army when they graduated from eighth grade, he would come back for the ceremony.
So, he did, on Thursday night.
The major general’s voice seemed to catch in his throat as he told the class — and, especially, the six students who remain from that original second-grade class — how he knows how much they care about others.
Then, pulling a large blue cloth away, he unveiled a large frame that holds a T-shirt those students gave him when he left Arsenal Island. The shirt says, “The General’s Kids.”
Several students surprised him at his formal change-of-command ceremony in July 2003, wearing shirts just like it.
“That’s the first thing I see every day in my office,” he said, his voice breaking.
Boles offered the class a list of three expectations for them: Continue to grow. Continue to connect with people. Continue to love.
“Understand the power of love,” he said. “Don’t stop loving your parents.”
Then, he listed two things people should never be able to say about them: “You don’t care,” and “You could have done more.”
And one last thing to always remember: Use your head and use your heart.
“What I want to tell them is some things will change and some things won’t — and values endure,” Boles said. “They should stay true to them.”
Family and friends gave Boles a standing ovation after his speech, and commented later how impressed they were that he traveled all that way for this event.
“I think it’s amazing that he would take such an interest in these kids,” said Suzanne Broggini, whose daughter, Veronica, has known Boles since his first connection with the school.
The students’ former second-grade teacher, Vinnie Smith, no longer teaches at Our Lady of Lourdes. But she attended their graduation Thursday to reminisce about the class and see the general again.
That was a year when “it was one of those wonderful opportunities in life, when things collide and they just work out perfectly,” she said. She said Boles initially was invited to the school because the general worked with the former principal’s husband at Arsenal Island.
“It was that immediate connection between Gen. Boles and the students, the parents and myself,” Smith said. “It was one of those years as a teacher that you will never, ever forget.”
Smith said it’s hard to describe the impact the general has had on all of their lives, calling him “extraordinary” and “a person of such quality depth and character.”
“We are all better because we know him,” she said.
Boles said the same about the people at Our Lady of Lourdes, who “just wrapped their arms around” his wife while he was deployed overseas. The New York native spent “18 wonderful months” in the Quad-Cities before transferring to the Pentagon.
Now, he is preparing to retire in October after 33 years of service. But these Quad-City children — and their school — always will stay close to his heart.
“I’ve been around the world a lot,” Boles said. “When I go into Lourdes, I feel the energy and what a positive place it is. It’s a wonderful school.”