NUNDA – William H. Donovan has been gone for 20 years.
A celebrated U.S. Navy commander and 1982 Keshequa alumnus, Donovan was killed when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
He was 37 years old and left behind a wife and three children.
But thanks to the 200 or so Nunda residents who assembled Saturday afternoon at Donovan’s alma mater, his memory remains very much alive.
“Billy was smart,” recalled Ken Weaver, who graduated from Keshequa a couple of years after Donovan and who served as master of ceremonies during Saturday’s remembrance. “He was a jokester. He was competitive. He was dedicated.”
Donovan had been working at the Pentagon for a little more than a year in 2001, after transitioning from Navy pilot to a staff position with the Chief of Naval Operations, the latter being a less risky job for a sailor and a husband and father to three preteen children. After the Sept. 11 attack, he was among those missing and presumed dead and was later buried in the Naval Academy Cemetery.
During his brief remarks, Nunda Historical Society President Tom Cook keyed in on three words at the bottom of Donovan’s memorial, which sits near the base of the flag pole in front of Keshequa on Mill Street: “We Will Remember.”
Cook observed that no child currently attending the district was yet alive when the plane that killed Donovan crashed into the Pentagon, and that many parents in the audience were too young to have any meaningful memories of that day.
“That inscription is more than a statement of fact,” said Cook. “ ‘We Will Remember’ is also a promise that the Nunda community will never forget Billy and the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and it is up to us who do remember keep that promise and then pass it on to future generations… Let us each silently say once more to Billy and the other victims of Sept. 11 that we will remember today, tomorrow and for generations to come.”
Saturday’s remembrance ceremony honored all the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Also honored were military personnel who have died in the war against terrorism, those who continue to serve as well as first responders - including six Nunda Ambulance Service workers who traveled to ground zero in New York City in the aftermath of Sept. 11 to help in rescue and recovery efforts.
“We must not forget and always remember all of those who gave their lives for this great county,” said Weaver, who also serves as Livingston County’s American Legion commander.
Prior to Saturday’s ceremony, the Nunda Fire Department blared its siren five times – once each in remembrance of those killed in the north and south towers of the World Trade Center, once for those killed in the attack at the Pentagon, once for those killed when United Airlines Flight 93 crashed near Shanksville, Pa. after the plane’s passengers fought back against the terrorists and once in honor of all those killed in the acts of terrorism that day.
During the ceremony, fire department personnel staged a flag-raising and lowering as well as a “striking of the four fives,” a fire service tradition meant to extend final honors to department comrades in the fire service. The ceremony also included an invocation and benediction from the Rev. Ronald Duttweiler, pastor at the Trinity Church of Nunda, and Paul Palmer, senior pastor at the Oakland Wesleyan Church in Nunda, respectively.
Near the end of the ceremony, Nunda VFW Auxiliary President Lorena Bennett placed a wreath near Donovan’s memorial both in his honor and for all those lost during the war on terrorism. After the wreath-laying, Dalton and Nunda American Legion members fired a salute volley, after which Nunda Legionnaire Ron Powers played Taps.
After graduating from Keshequa in 1982, Donovan was commissioned to the Naval Academy, where he graduated in 1986.
He served in Patrol Squadrons 11, 31, and 1 and served aboard the U.S.S. George Washington before taking his post at the Pentagon. He was an aviator in the Persian Gulf War and later became a pilot instructor and received a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering at the Naval Postgraduate School in California.
Among his numerous awards were the Admiral William Adger Moffett Award for aeronautical engineering and the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation and Achievement medals.
In high school, Donovan was president of the Key Club, a member of National Honor Society, a wrestler, and winner of Daughters of the American Revolution and Bausch & Lomb awards.
In tributes and remembrances about Donovan, many who knew him noted an impish smile that appeared often.
While Weaver knew Donovan – the two were a couple of years apart at Keshequa – he chose to read some memories and remembrances of Donovan others who knew him have posted online since his death.
A chief petty officer on the U.S.S. George Washington who served with Donovan recalled him as “a hoot and fun to be around… easy going, but always determined and fair.”
“He was tactically astute and unflappable when combat operations went hairy,” said Weaver, reading from the chief petty officer’s remembrance. “I’m proud to say I knew him. I think about him often. I hope he’s in my unit in the afterlife. I’ll be in good company, for sure.”
In another remembrance, a friend of Donovan’s wrote to his surviving family that he had “no doubt he’s watching over you and always will.”
Another friend wrote “You had an infectious laugh and a good sense of humor. God bless. You are not forgotten
Finally, a fellow Keshequa classmate recalled driving by the Pentagon in 2018, around the 17-year anniversary of the 2001 attacks.
“I... had to pull over. I cried for a long time,” said Weaver, reading from the Donovan’s classmate’s remembrance. “I will never forget you, my friend. Today, I shall raise a glass to you and celebrate your life. Damn, I wish you were here.”
Added Weaver: “I can’t personally say anything better than what these people have said about Billy and what thoughts they’ve put to paper over the last 20 years... The only thing I will say is I will continue to remember and I will never forget.”