Penn State dedicates stadium seat to POW/MIA service members

September 08, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – As a constant reminder to never forget those who served in the U.S. Armed Forces but have not returned home, Penn State dedicated a Chair of Honor in Beaver Stadium on Sept. 8 for all prisoners of war/missing in action (POW/MIA) service members. The seat will be unveiled for the community during Penn State’s first home football game of the season against Ball State University on Sept. 11. 

The Chair of Honor, located in the “SLU” area, above the student section of the stadium, will remain empty to serve as a reminder that we must spare no effort when there are prisoners of war to return them home and to fully account for those missing in action, according to EugeneMcFeely, senior director for Veteran Affairs and Services.  

McFeely expressed that the seat carries significant symbolic meaning for the families of POW/MIA individuals. 

"While we are here at home, there are families that may be suffering due to the absence of a loved one that's either a POW or MIA," McFeely said. "Currently, there are more than 81,600 service members listed as MIA. The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency’s mission is to provide the fullest possible accounting for our missing service members from past conflicts to their families and the nation. Nationally, POW/MIA seats remind us to exhaust all means to bring service members home." 

According to Sandy Barbour, vice president for Intercollegiate Athletics, the dedication now marks Beaver Stadium as the nation's largest stadium with a Chair of Honor. 

"The installation of this seat was a collaborative effort involving students, POW/MIA families, veterans, Intercollegiate Athletics, World Campus, and Penn State faculty and staff,” said Penn State President Eric J. Barron. “I’m very grateful for everyone’s hard work and persistence, because this seat will serve as a powerful symbol of our duty to bring home our nation’s POW/MIA service members."

In addition to the unveiling of the Chair of Honor, on Friday, Sept. 17, Penn State’s annual 24-hour POW/MIA vigil will begin at 4 p.m. on Old Main lawn at University Park. Penn State’s vigil is aligned with National POW/MIA Recognition Day, which falls on the third Friday of September each year and is free and open to the public. 

A military service member stands outside of a plane in gear.

Lewis P. Smith II was a Penn State graduate ('64, music) and Blue Band member in the trumpet section. He had an interest in working for the University after returning from his deployment.

IMAGE: Debra Burger

Behind the chair

The idea for a Chair of Honor came to the University via Debra Burger, a long-time resident of Bellefonte, Pa. She presented the idea to Penn State on behalf of her brother, Major Lewis P. Smith II, an MIA service member from the Vietnam War and 1964 Penn State graduate. 

Smith, a music major, was a member of the Blue Band's trumpet section and the Air Force ROTC program. Upon graduation, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the United States Air Force and attended pilot training. 

Smith, who was only 25 years old at the time, was listed as MIA while flying a combat mission over Laos in his O-2A Skymaster aircraft in the Vietnam War. Burger expressed that while her brother has yet to return home, her family has not given up hope. 

"In the beginning, the worst part was not knowing, and when my mom passed, I told her that Iwill do everything I can to bring Lewis home," Burger said. "Now we know where he is located, and we are hoping that he can come home, but it's been a rollercoaster. We're not the only family going through this. Ultimately, it's the desire for closure that keeps me going." 

Among those driving the Chair of Honor project was Zachary McKay, a spring 2021 Penn State graduate and former University Park Undergraduate Association (UPUA) president (2020-21). McKay, now a service member (Ensign) in the Navy, was the first UPUA president to be a member of the ROTC. 

Due to McKay’s efforts to re-energize the POW/MIA seat initiative and the support of students,faculty and staff from across Penn State, President Barron committed the University to install a permanent POW/MIA seat in Beaver Stadium. The team hoped to place the seat for the 2020 football season; however, COVID-19 stalled the plans due to the cancelation of in-person attendees. 

Now, through the efforts of the Veteran's Affairs and Services office, McKay and many others, Burger is seeing the idea come to fruition in fall 2021. 

"For the families of these service members, there will always be a part of themselves that is missing," McKay said. "It can be easy to get caught up in our lives and not know that others around us are suffering. I hope that the empty seat hits home and reminds people in the stadium that families continue to be impacted." While the seat holds significant meaning for her family and loved ones, Burger expressed that the seat represents all POW/MIA service members.

"This seat isn't just for Lewis – it's for everyone," Burger said. "I want young service members, like the Penn State students that are serving right now, to know that we are here for them and we'll never leave them behind." 

Military Appreciation Week

Penn State will celebrate its 10th annual Military Appreciation Week by honoring the Pennsylvania National Guard with in-person and virtual festivities for University and local community members, including military families and those who serve or have served in the U.S. Armed Forces. Additional details about this season's planned Military Appreciation Week events, including the annual Veterans Day Ceremony, student veteran panel conversationand more, will be provided later this fall. 

More information about military appreciation at Penn State, including event information as it is available, visit militaryappreciation.psu.edu.  

A plague is shown from the Beaver Stadium in dedication of all POW/MIA service members.

The newly dedicated (Sept. 8) POW/MIA Chair of Honor inside Penn State's Beaver Stadium will serve as a constant reminder to never forget those who served in the U.S. Armed Forces but have not returned home.

IMAGE: Patrick Mansell

 

 

Last Updated September 10, 2021