91-Year-Old Volunteer Among Veterans Honored by White Oaks Elementary
From serving their country to serving their community, veterans are giving back at White Oaks Elementary School — and the school is taking time to honor them ahead of Veterans Day.
Anyone visiting White Oaks Elementary School in Burke will immediately find familiar sights and sounds: excited students on their way to the book fair in the library, handmade artwork adorning the walls, and a smiling kindergarten teacher leading a line of students while wearing a superhero cape for a themed dress-up day.
What you may not realize is she doesn’t need to wear a cape: she’s a real-life hero who served her country before joining Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS). She’s not alone: three other staff members and volunteers within the school’s walls have their own stories to share.
Before she was a kindergarten teacher at White Oaks, Ralphael “Ralph” DiBacco was a sergeant in the United States Army, specializing in cryptology. She found a new passion for teaching while raising her first child. That led her into a 20-year career at FCPS, spent entirely at White Oaks.
DiBacco says she loves the school community — it even helped her adjust to civilian life after her military career.
“I feel like I'm back in a family unit because our teams are wonderful here,” she said, “that's why I've stayed here for so long because I love the family atmosphere.”
White Oaks’ Most Valuable Volunteer — Captain Stuntz
DiBacco isn’t the only person at White Oaks who now serves students after serving our country. One of the school’s most valuable volunteers is a 91-year-old Navy veteran. Captain Harley Stuntz, known to everyone in the building simply as “Captain,” has volunteered at the school for 25 years. Before that, he had a storied career in the Navy, which started when he enrolled in the United States Naval Academy in 1951. Before his retirement in 1978, Stuntz spent 20 years as a Naval Airman, going on six tours in Vietnam.
Looking back on his time serving, Stuntz said, “I enjoyed it. To me, it was an adventure.”
Stuntz recalled when he played a role in an adventure for all humankind. On July 24, 1969, the aircraft carrier USS Hornet recovered the Apollo 11 command module after it splashed down in the Pacific Ocean. Inside the capsule were astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins, back on Earth after making history as the first men to land on the Moon.
Stuntz was the retrieval officer aboard the Hornet, stationed at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.
“That was exciting,” said Stuntz. “President Nixon came aboard with his entourage and watched the retrieval of the capsule. That was probably the highlight of my career.”
White Oaks Elementary was a brand new school when Captain began volunteering in a classroom. Today, he’s in the workroom two days a week, running the copy and laminating machines. Stuntz has logged at least 7,500 volunteer hours at White Oaks since he started in 1998, and both the teachers and the students are thankful for every minute of it.
“His dedication to our school is unbelievable,” said Principal Ryan Richardson, “He's a cornerstone here. When he's not here, people notice. And let me tell you, he’s missed very few days in the 10 years I've been here.”
And Captain is no exception. Richardson says he sees the same level of dedication to service from each of White Oaks’ veteran employees and volunteers.
Offering a Unique Skill Set
“A lot of our veterans are officer level, and they have a skill set we're looking for with communication, collaboration, flexibility,” said Richardson. “[They] know they're willing and able to flex on the move, take on any responsibility we ask them to do, and do it in a very thoughtful, systematic way. They're great problem solvers.”
For two more veterans at White Oaks, flexing is part of the job. Alan Peek and Clarissa Pruismann are classroom monitors. Their day starts with an email listing daily tasks, which range from filling in for teachers who have meetings to monitoring recess to serving meals in the cafeteria. And no two days are the same.
Peek served nearly 50 years with the United States Coast Guard, both on active duty and as a civilian contractor, retiring with the rank of captain. He joined FCPS after retiring to stay active and quickly learned the skills he gained in the Coast Guard could help him serve in a new way.
Peek says the best part of the job is interacting with students.
“My main goal,” he said, “is just to make sure that I set a good example, a good role model for the students, and that I provide the best support that I can for teachers on my assignments of the day.”
“It's great. It's great working with the kids,” agreed Pruismann, who served as a master sergeant in the United States Air Force before joining FCPS after her retirement in 2022. “I would have never guessed that I would enjoy working at an elementary school with the students.”
Serving Military Families
As a recently retired veteran, Pruismann knows how challenging school can be for students in military families, which is why she thinks public schools must honor veterans. “I think it should be a priority because many students rotate a lot,” she said. “My children have been to four schools now; my oldest has probably been to six. So having that community for the military students and welcoming their parents, I think it's comforting for them.”
“In the military, being away from home and everything, not being near family and friends that you want to be near, I understand their pain,” said DiBacco. “I understand coming into a new environment and not knowing a soul and then trying to make friends.”
Principal Richardson says the veteran presence at White Oaks is one way the school serves military families — bringing a sense of community to the halls.
“It started word of mouth that we wanted veterans to come to our building. One veteran started talking to others and saw how well we treat our military families,” he explained, “and it kind of grew from there.”
Another show of support is a long-standing tradition: a yearly Veterans Breakfast that falls on or near Veterans Day. DiBacco remembers how it started: with a smaller “Donuts for Veterans” event. With support from the PTA, it grew into a full breakfast for veterans in the school community. Students take part, too — last year, they decorated personalized dog tags for every veteran who attended.
“Just seeing the veterans’ eyes light up, especially the older veterans who are in their 80s and 90s when they walk into our breakfast honoring them for their service, brings tears to your eyes,” said DiBacco. “I love to listen to their stories, what they did in the military and what they're doing now, and how they're helping their community as well.”
A Message for all Veterans
Now, as White Oaks prepares for another Veterans Breakfast, Principal Richardson has a special message for all Veterans in the FCPS community.
“This is an exciting time of the year to reach out and thank those who've served in all our branches of the military,” he said. “Veterans Day celebrates you. It's only one day, but we do not forget you on all the other days. Without you, we wouldn't be here and be able to do these things, have the freedoms we have, and have the opportunities to put great role models in front of students. Looking at our veterans, both retired and active duty, thank you for your service and thank you for your dedication to our school system and our students here at FCPS.”
Fairfax County Public Schools also express our deepest gratitude to our Veterans for their courageous service and selfless dedication to our nation.
Learn more about our Education Policies and Programs Supporting Military Families.