When the color guard of the Junior ROTC opens graduation ceremonies at Lely High School Friday night, the students bearing the colors know this is a very special event for one of their favorite people.
It’s also special for JROTC students past and present who’ve been influenced by the man who has commanded the program for the past 15 years at Lely, Lt. Col David Price.
Col. Price, who returns to his students their affection, respect and regard, is retiring this summer. It’s a bittersweet time for him.
“Telling my cadets that I’m leaving was one of the hardest things I have ever done,” he says. “It was very emotional, hearing from so many former Lely cadets. They warmed my heart and made my 15 years here so gratifying.”
A good example of the impact Col. Price has on students in the JROTC program is that of two Marco sisters who attend Lely High School.
Maddie Richie is a senior, graduating after four years with the JROTC program under Col. Price. She’s been on his senior staff this year.
Camille Richie is a freshman at Lely. Maddie once predicted that her sibling Camille would never join JROTC. But Col. Price wasn’t convinced.
“I sought her out when I spoke to the Charter School 8th graders.” Camille joined up and has become seriously enthusiastic.
Says her mother Nancy Richie, “I wouldn’t be surprised if Camille goes to a military school after Lely. She’s going to camp this summer with 18 other Lely cadets.” Mom also says that Camille teared up when she heard Col. Price was retiring.
“His impact on the JROTC students is priceless,” Nancy says. “He’s one of the sweetest and most genuine persons I have ever met. I hope his replacement has the same demeanor and love of the job.
“He is Maddie’s favorite person on the planet without a doubt.”
Col. Price is a modest guy who gives a lot more credit to others than he acknowledges for himself. Pressed to reflect on his time here, he offered a few highlights.
“My most gratifying piece of the JROTC program is that in my time cadet seniors have averaged more than $800,000 dollars in scholarship offers every year. Last year 13 of our cadet seniors went to four-year colleges and universities and were offered $1.35 million in scholarships.
“Eighty-two percent of our Lely cadet graduates go on to four-year schools. That’s remarkable realizing that the average for all high school seniors who go to four-year colleges is about 50 percent.”
Some of this year’s graduating Lely cadets are going to college at such schools as the University of Florida, Florida State University, Cornell University and the University of Rochester NY, to name a few.
Col. Price has helped parents and students understand that the Junior ROTC is a lot different than college level Reserve Officers Training Corps.
“It’s totally different. There’s a distinction between the Senior ROTC (college level) which is trying to train officers for the army, navy, air force and marines, and the JROTC, whose mission is to motivate young people to be better citizens.
“I try to get students to develop goals in their lives, whatever the goal may be. I truly do not care whether they ever enter military service.”
Col. Price has encountered parents and some students who enter Lely believing that JROTC means the kids may be enlisted into the military.
“I say ‘I’m not here to enlist you in the army’ and they say, ‘yeah, right,’ but it’s absolutely true.”
Col. Price tells his cadets that he is not recruiting or training soldiers but is “teaching the students self discipline, self confidence and pride.”
So what’s next for this not-so-old soldier, who has served previously at the Army Central Command headquarters in Tampa and as an intelligence officer in Kuwait during the Gulf War?
“My wife and I are moving to the Hiawassee — Young Harris area of North Georgia,” Col. Price says, adding that they have family ties there. He’s exploring possible professional interests, perhaps at a local college.
Leaving here, as we mentioned, is bittersweet for Col. Price.
“I wanted to keep my departure quiet, just not be here next year, sort of like Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who said old soldiers never die, they just fade away.”
It didn’t work for MacArthur and it won’t work for Col. Price either, but for very different reasons.
President Truman fired MacArthur from his job as commander in the Korean War in 1951 after the two men had a noisy, nasty clash over how to conduct the war.
Col. Price can’t just fade away from this arena because too many people who have crossed paths with him at Lely will remember his years here for a long, long time.