The day after Gary Scott’s funeral on a somber spring morn in 1968, Jim Bruen felt compelled to return to his friend’s freshly dug grave site. There, in the quiet solitude of Rochester Riverside Cemetery, he said a prayer and shed a few more tears for the U.S. Army lieutenant who a few weeks earlier had sacrificed his life to save a fellow soldier in Vietnam. Bruen then began walking around the tombstone, and noticed a bunch of empty gun shells from the previous day’s military ceremony. He picked them up and sent one casing each to the guys who had lived and bonded with Scott and Bruen during their four years together at Syracuse University.
Bruen wasn’t merely searching for shells that day, but also for meaning. He kept thinking about Scott’s warm smile and zest for life and that conversation he had with him on commencement day in 1967. Scott had just graduated at the top of his ROTC class and had his pick of assignments. The newly commissioned Army officer chose the most difficult and dangerous one, becoming a platoon leader in the 101st Airborne during the height of the Vietnam War. Bruen, who had served four years in the Navy before entering SU, tried talking his friend out of taking the infantry position, but Gary was adamant.
An African American, Scott was well aware of the dearth of blacks in leadership positions, and felt he could help create more opportunities if he proved his mettle in war. On Dec. 14 of that year, he was deployed to Southeast Asia. It would be his first and last tour of duty, as he was killed in an ambush in Hue, Vietnam on March 29, 1968.
“His timing was awful because by that time the war had taken a dramatic turn for the worst,’’ Bruen said recently from his home in Bradenton, Fla. “I tried to tell him that he could still accomplish the goals he wanted to without taking on that assignment. He could have chosen any branch of the military; that’s how accomplished and respected he already was. But Gary had made up his mind, and that was that. He clearly had noble reasons for doing what he did. It’s just so sad because those of us who knew him believe he could have become like Colin Powell (the first African American to serve as the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) had he lived.”
Though his life was cut short at age 22, Gary Scott’s legacy lives on a half century later. He continues to impact people in profound ways. A year after Scott’s death, Bruen and several SU classmates started a scholarship fund in his memory. On June 27, another class of students at LeRoy High School—Scott’s alma mater—will learn about a man who deserves to be remembered. And Bruen will be there to present an $8,000 scholarship to a graduating senior who embodies the characteristics that made Scott so special.
“We originally thought about setting something up at SU, but we felt it would have more impact in his hometown,’’ Bruen said. “It’s where he spent his formative years. He always spoke fondly, lovingly of LeRoy.”
Bruen will be joined by several SU classmates, along with family members, friends and previous scholarship recipients. “I guarantee you there won’t be a dry eye in the house by the time the ceremony is done,’’ said Jim Bonacquisti, a long-time LeRoy football coach who co-authored “A Knight’s Journey,” a book about the history of the storied small high school program that traces its roots to the late 19th century. “We throw around the word ‘hero’ so much that it sometimes loses its meaning. But Gary Scott was a true American hero. He was the real deal.”
That he was. And LeRoy, the close-knit, rural village 20 miles southwest of Rochester, played an integral role in shaping him. His parents, William and Mabel Scott, had moved the family to that predominantly white community in the 1940s in search of what they hoped would be a better life for their kids. William worked in a tractor factory, while Mable looked after the family. They were aware of the places blacks were not allowed to go, the social lines they couldn’t cross.
“Our parents told us, ‘There will be hardships, yes, but be what you were created to be.’ ’’ Gary’s brother, David, recalled in a 2015 interview with Sean Kirst of the Syracuse Post-Standard. “They said, ‘What other people do to you will not determine who you are. The way you treat other people … That’s what you have to live with. That’s what you have to answer for. That is what you are.’ ”
By all accounts, Gary treated everyone he encountered with respect, and that respect was returned tenfold. “I don’t know of anyone who ever said a bad word about Gary, or his siblings,’’ said Bruce Platek, a high school football teammate of Scott’s. “Everybody respected him, the way he carried himself. He was soft-spoken on the football field, but when something needed to be said, he said it, and when he did, everybody listened.”
All five of William and Mabel Scott’s children went on to receive college diplomas. Bill Scott, the oldest brother, was LeRoy’s valedictorian, and sister Sylvia also was a top-notch student. But, in a family of high achievers, Gary may have been the most driven. There was just something about him. He appeared destined for greatness. Scott earned an ROTC scholarship to the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, which had a reciprocal academic relationship with Syracuse University. That’s how Bruen, an SU student, and he became roommates. They were among a group of about a dozen freshmen who would spend all four years together. It was a diverse group of young men who wound up forming lifetime bonds.
“Sports were important to us, and it showed as our group wound up winning campus-wide intramural championships,’’ Bruen said. “We were quite active, always doing some physical activity. And Gary always seemed to be at the center of everything, leading by example. I have fond memories of us jogging through the cemetery (bordering the SU campus), and Gary running in his combat boots. He was always pushing himself to be better, and I could see that he really enjoyed the spit-and-polish environment of ROTC.”
On commencement day, the young men toasted their friendships and their seemingly boundless futures. But Bruen remembers his euphoric feelings coming to a screeching halt when Scott mentioned his decision to become an infantry commander. A Naval veteran who was four years older than his classmates, Bruen had a perspective Scott didn’t. He pulled his friend aside and said: “Don’t do this. You’ve got a lifetime to prove yourself and open up doors for others. This will put you at high risk.”
Scott wouldn’t budge. Nine months later he would be killed in combat. News of his death crushed Bruen, who was working at Eastman Kodak at the time. He and five of his SU classmates served as pallbearers at Scott’s funeral. A few months later, they began the scholarship program at LeRoy as a way not only to ensure Scott is remembered, but also to help others follow in his exemplary footsteps.
During Scott’s senior year of high school, he received the John Aramino Award. It was named for the former LeRoy student who made a split-second decision to jump onto a set of railroad tracks to save a young boy. Aramino wound up being killed instantly by a barreling train, but the boy survived. The award and what it stood for meant a great deal to Scott, who several years later would follow suit, sacrificing his life to save someone else’s. Aramino’s younger brother, Arthur, wound up being one of the first recipients of the Gary Scott Award nearly 50 years ago.
Next week, another person will be honored, and Scott’s story of heroism will be shared with a new generation. “It’s strange how things work out,’’ Bruen said. “A half century later Gary still is the glue that holds many of us together.”
Best-selling author and nationally honored Rochester Business Journal sports columnist Scott Pitoniak will be conducting a talk and booksigning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown July 3 at 1 p.m.