SALINAS VALLEY — A retired captain in the U.S. Navy who grew up in the Salinas Valley returned to the area last week to not only visit family, but also speak to local youth about veterans and the meaning behind Veterans Day.
Gilbert “Gil” Acosta was invited to Mary Chapa Academy in Greenfield on Thursday to make presentations to help the elementary students understand the significance of the Nov. 11 holiday that annually honors American military veterans who have served in the Armed Forces.
Acosta has been making these presentations to students and staff in Elgin, Ill., where he currently lives, for the past seven years as part of a volunteer speaking group called Veterans Voices. In cooperation with school districts, the program enlists more than 50 veteran speakers to address K-12 students during the week of Veterans Day each year.
“The program is so popular that there are more requests than we can fill,” Acosta said.
This year, however, the 84-year-old veteran wanted to bring the presentation to his hometown of Greenfield, since he had planned to be in the area visiting family. He gave special praise to Kristen Pantaleon, principal of Mary Chapa Academy, for organizing the Nov. 9 event.
“She and staff did a wonderful job,” he said. “It was gratifying to me to be there.”
Acosta spoke to more than 200 fourth, fifth and sixth graders during three half-hour sessions at the school. He said the presentations were not to lecture the youth, but to talk with them about national pride and the veterans who have served to protect their freedoms.
“We have to reinforce patriotism and pride of the country,” he said. “I feel we’re losing it, and they shouldn’t take their freedoms for granted.”
Acosta, who was born in Fresno, moved to Greenfield as a teenager and graduated from King City High School in 1957. He then attended Hartnell College before transferring to Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, where he graduated with an engineering degree in 1963.
After graduating, Acosta joined the U.S. Navy and trained at the Officer School in Rhode Island. He completed four years of active duty, including three tours to Vietnam.
“It was something, at the time, I didn’t think I’d want to do,” Acosta said about his experience in the Navy. “But as it turned out, it was the greatest thing to ever happen to me.”
Acosta continued serving in the Naval Reserve for another 24 years. As a civilian, he worked as the human resources director for a major corporation in Illinois before retiring to a Chicago suburb.
During that afternoon at Mary Chapa Academy, Acosta was also joined by several of the school’s namesake’s loved ones, including his wife of 58 years, Teri, who is the youngest sister of Mary Chapa.
“We’re making the connections of the Chapa family with the school to try to reconnect everything and let them know there was a Mary Chapa and what she did for the children of Greenfield that resulted in her being selected to have her name placed on what is now the Mary Chapa Academy,” he said.
One key message that Acosta hopes students will remember is to continue their education, whether that includes attending college or joining the military.
“Never stop learning,” he said. “Take advantage of any learning opportunity.”