With a history stretching back 360 years, the Huntington School District has its fair share of mysteries. Unraveling them and discovering what really happened takes time and plenty of research. Some of the stories have happy endings and others don’t. This one doesn’t.
Developing articles for the district website sometimes requires old fashioned detective work. The process of getting to the bottom of an historical mystery can be a fascinating pursuit.
Requests routinely arrive from former students and teachers seeking to learn the whereabouts of classmates and colleagues. So it wasn’t surprising to get one such query from retired J. Taylor Finley Junior High School social studies teacher Andrew Athanas. He was inquiring about Roy W. Westerfield, who taught at Robert L. Simpson Junior High School in the late 1960s.
Simpson was located in the building that now houses Huntington Town Hall. It was a very special place. After RL Simpson High School closed in November 1958 upon the opening of the current Huntington High School building, the structure was completely renovated and rechristened as a junior high school, serving grades 7-9 from September 1961 through June 1976. It was later sold to the town for $1.
Mr. Westerfield taught general music, orchestra and choir at Simpson during the 1967/68 and 1968/69 school years, serving on the faculty alongside Mr. Athanas, who was also a young teacher at the time.
Born April 24, 1945, Mr. Westerfield graduated from Smithtown High School with a Regents diploma in June 1963. He went on to study at SUNY Potsdam’s Crane Institute of Music, obtaining a Bachelor of Science degree in May 1967. He was one of just 35 members of the 486 student strong Class of 1967 to graduate with “highest honors,” a designation requiring a grade point average of 3.5 or higher.
Mr. Westerfield applied to Huntington UFSD on March 29, 1967 for a teaching position. “Education is a process which must take into consideration the three following elements: student, teacher and knowledge,” he wrote in an addendum to his application that he titled “philosophy of education. “The student is placed first, since his is the position of primary importance. All should be directed to him and he should be thought of as an individual. He is not simply a part of the class. The class is composed of many students. There must be a respect for the pupil by the teacher; and in return, a respect of the teacher by the pupil. This area of respect between teacher and student is one that must be built by the teacher, incorporating his own personality, which must be expressed with no falsity.”
Mr. Westerfield wrote that “the material taught is of consequence, but not equal to the first two elements. A knowledge of material must be obtained before anyone can teach; but even more than this, the teacher must have a knowledge of the students, both physical and mental; theoretical and practical.”
Mr. Westerfield said the three elements of student, teacher and knowledge “welded together can and should produce success for both teacher and student. Very simply, I have chosen teaching because I feel I can fulfill the above requirements, and more so, I want to.”
A few short days later on April 3, 1967, Huntington Superintendent Charles T. St. Clair sent Mr. Westerfield a letter offering him a teaching position at Robert L. Simpson Junior High School. He was placed on the first step of the salary schedule; $6,300. On April 5, Mr. Westerfield accepted the offer.
By all accounts, Mr. Westerfield was a gifted educator. He wore a dark suit, white shirt and narrow tie to work. It hung on his tall, thin frame.
Mr. Athanas remembers how the music teacher taught the ninth grade chorus the song “Traces” released as a single in January 1969 by the Classics IV. “It was a beautiful song from the year he was drafted,” Mr. Athanas said. “He was very talented. I never heard a junior high chorus better than his. He taught them a contemporary song and the kids loved it.”
Following his first year at Simpson, Mr. Westerfield married one of his SUNY Potsdam Crane Institute of Music classmates, Mary Ellen Dockum, herself a teacher. The ceremony was held on June 29, 1968 at St. Andrew’s Church in Norwood, New York. The couple moved into an apartment at 233 Main Street in Huntington village. Mr. Athanas recalls visiting the apartment.
Despite being one of Simpson’s most popular teachers, Mr. Westerfield was unable to stay at the school. He was drafted at the height of the Vietnam War and left Huntington following the conclusion of the school year in June 1969. By December 1969 he was commissioned a lieutenant in the US Air Force.
Mr. Westerfield’s Simpson Junior High School colleagues were very sorry to see him leave the district. “I have never known a teacher to show more improvement in a year than Mr. Westerfield,” wrote Simpson Principal Emory Bromsted in an evaluation dated February 3, 1969. “He has done an outstanding job with the ninth grade choir. Over the past several years feeble attempts have been made to have a ninth grade choir. For the first time, Mr. Westerfield has been highly successful in this area. What a shame he has to leave because of the draft. Our hope is that he will be able to last until June and that when his period of service is over, he will want to return to Huntington. We are losing an excellent teacher.”
Mr. Athanas and none of Simpson’s other teachers ever heard another word from Mr. Westerfield, who went on to serve in the USAF during the Vietnam War. He survived his service and decided to remain in the military after the war ended.
Mr. Athanas thought he spotted Mr. Westerfield’s name on the Vietnam War Memorial Wall in Washington, DC, indicating the former Huntington teacher had been killed in the conflict. But his name is not, in fact, etched into the memorial wall.
Mr. Westerfield went on to attain the rank of captain. He specialized in flying the F-111D aircraft, built for the USAF by General Dynamics. The F-111D was based at Cannon Air Force Base, located about seven miles southwest of Clovis, New Mexico. The former Huntington faculty member was assigned to the 27th Tactical Fighter Wing.
On the morning of February 6, 1980, 35 year old Captain Westerfield and 23 year old Second Lt. Stephen P. Anderson took off for a cross country training flight. About 10:26 a.m. their F-111D collided in midair about 11 nautical miles northeast of Cannon Air Force Base with a Cessna TU-206G airplane that had departed Alameda Airport in Albuquerque, New Mexico on a business trip and made a stop at Tucumcari, New Mexico before heading to its ultimate destination in Clovis, New Mexico.
The two aircraft collided at about 5,800 feet. The pilot and passenger aboard the Cessna and both crew members of the F-111D were killed. The weather was clear and the visibility was reported as 30 miles.
“The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of this accident was the failure of both aircraft to request radar traffic advisories, the failure of the F-111D flight crew to see and avoid the Cessna TU-206G, and the failure of the RAPCON controllers to observe the Cessna radar target and to issue traffic advisories to the F-111D,” according to an abstract of the investigation report. “Contributing to the accident were the limitations of the ‘see and avoid’ concept in a terminal area with low speed/high speed traffic.”
Captain Westerfield initiated ejection for himself and his fellow crew member when the F-111D was at about 1,300 feet, “but the capsule’s chute did not have the necessary 2,000 feet to deploy and the capsule struck the ground nose down on left side, bounced 30 feet and ended up upside down; crew killed on impact,” states the investigation report.
It seems surreal that a pilot who survived air combat in the Vietnam War would be killed as the result of a midair collision with a civilian aircraft over New Mexico on a clear day with 30 miles of visibility. Captain Westerfield was interred at Arlington National Cemetery in Section 60 at site 1065. He left behind a wife and two young sons.
Although he had walked away from his Huntington teaching career many years earlier, Captain Westerfield, never completely abandoned his love of music and sharing it with others. Online news accounts are still available of his participation in Air Force base music activities.