It’s been almost 51 years since William Dabbert and Robert Conti were killed months apart in Vietnam, but their friends from Arlington High School’s Class of 1964 have never forgotten them.
The memories are sometimes hazy.
Yet the essence is always there: Two young men so much like themselves made the ultimate sacrifice in an unpopular war and, as a result, were denied the life opportunities and experiences we all take for granted.
Over the years, the former classmates developed a tradition of honoring the pair on Memorial Day weekend.
In the early years, this was accomplished by attending Arlington Heights’ Memorial Day parade and ceremony, one of the largest in the Chicago area. Afterward, they’d retire to a restaurant to trade stories.
Over the past decade, a more formal dinner reception at a country club was added to the itinerary.
Then. the coronavirus hit, and this year’s parade was canceled. So was the dinner.
But still they remember.
“They were both special people without a doubt,” said the class of ’64’s Laura (Lynch) Weaver, who recalls each of them as “friendly, sensitive” types.
Dabbert and Conti ran in separate crowds, almost to be expected in a graduating class of 560, each popular in his own right.
Dabbert was the more easygoing one. He worked during high school at a McDonald’s across from Arlington Park racetrack, one of the first restaurants in the chain.
It was a favorite hangout for teenagers. When the parking spaces were full, the kids took “Mac laps,” circling the lot in their cars till a space opened up.
Dabbert had been a good baseball player as a Little Leaguer but stuck to intramural sports in high school on teams with his buddies.
Conti was more intense, president of the senior class, a top-ranked wrestler in the 120-pound class, maybe a little more serious in the classroom as well, yet still approachable.
Conti’s father, a corporate executive who would retire as a major general in the U.S. Army Marine Corps Reserve, put a wrestling mat in the basement to help his son hone his skills.
Dabbert died first — June 28, 1969.
He’d attended Western Illinois University but left school a semester before graduating because he expected to be drafted and wanted to spend whatever time he had left with his friends, said his younger brother Robert Dabbert of Elgin.
“He had a premonition,” Dabbert said. “He always would tell me he wasn’t coming back, and I didn’t believe him.”
Drafted into the Army, Dabbert had been in Vietnam just 23 days when he was killed, his brother said. His letters sent home continued to reach his family long after the notification of his death.
Friends had tried to convince Dabbert to go to Canada to avoid military service, but that was never a serious consideration despite his mixed emotions about the war, his brother said.
“Politically, he questioned our efforts there,” Robert Dabbert said. “He also had respect for our country. I think all of us were torn.”
But their father Bernard had served in World War II, and a sense of duty ran strong in the family.
For Conti, with a two-star general for a father, there was even less doubt about his intentions regarding the war. Louis Conti had been a decorated World War II veteran.
When Robert Conti headed to Lafayette College in Pennsylvania after high school, he enrolled in the Marine Corps Platoon Leaders Course. This allowed him to take basic training in college and enter the Marines as an officer, with a second lieutenant’s commission.
Conti survived nearly a year in Vietnam before he was killed Nov. 24, 1969, within a month of when he was to be coming home, said his brother Paul.
The young men’s deaths were devastating to their families, as you would expect.
They also left a mark on their friends.
“It hit us hard, really hard,” said Jim Ewart, a former high school football player and a member of the Letterman’s Club with Conti. “It happened at a time in our lives when we all thought we were invincible.”
Ewart said he’s been paying his respects since that first Memorial Day following their deaths. Over the years, the class of ‘64 formed its own seating area for the parade.
“Their deaths made the war very real for us,” said John Gleeson, who in 2012 began hosting a dinner the night before the parade, raising money for veterans’ groups.
Gleeson had recently moved back to Arlington Heights after retiring as treasurer of Walgreen Co. when he happened on the Dabbert family at the Memorial Day parade and decided he wanted to honor them.
“This is what Memorial Day is about,” Gleeson said. “It’s about people who sacrificed everything.”
By 1969, the class of ’64 had scattered, and many weren’t around to pay their respects.
“I think everybody had that deep need,” Gleeson said.
Steve Blackwell is among those who jumped at the chance. Like Gleeson, Blackwell was closer to Dabbert.
“It could have been me, but he went instead,” Blackwell said. “You owe these people.”
Blackwell said he opposed the war and was determined to do anything necessary to avoid serving, even going to Canada. He didn’t need to. He went to college and later got a high number in the draft lottery.
Maybe there’s an element of survivor’s guilt involved, said Blackwell, who was able to retire from a successful marketing career at 50 and now splits his time between homes in Des Plaines and Naples, Florida.
“You owe them this dignity, this respect, this admiration,” he said.
The kindness is much appreciated by the two families.
“We think it’s phenomenal that they would recognize him,” said Paul Conti.
“It’s really wonderful to get together with them,” said Robert Dabbert, whose mother Esther, 93, still lives in the home where she raised her five children and also attends the dinners.
I told Dabbert that it’s one thing for a family to keep the flame alive this way but something very special for high school friends to do so.
“It IS special,” he said.