In the last year Americans have heard a lot about our heroes in the fire departments across the country, and particularly in New York City. Now the Vinalhaven High School chorus is bringing new meaning to the words “our heroes.” After the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, VHS sophomore Anna Osgood wrote a song about the firefighters who responded to the call that day. She called the song “Our Heroes.”
The chorus has been singing this song at nearly every event and venue they can manage, including the VHS spring chorus concert, Memorial Day festivities, the Annual Vinalhaven Fire Department Ladies Night, and other community functions.
“When I wrote the song I wanted to express my feelings about 9/11,” said Osgood, who, at the age of 15, has an impressive 24 songs to her credit, five of which the chorus has sung as part of their performance programs in the past.
“Our Heroes” caught the attention of VHFD Captain Jeannie Conway last Memorial Day. Since then she has worked to promote the song and the chorus around Vinalhaven, and has been the driving force behind stepping up the caliber of their engagements. Conway was largely responsible for the girls’ trip last summer to Owl’s Head Transportation Museum where they sang Osgood’s song during a ceremony presenting a refurbished antique fire wagon to members of the Fire Department of New York. Most recently Conway helped get the girls to Freeport where they participated in the Annual Maine State Fire Fighters Convention on Sept. 21.
Conway was so moved by “Our Heroes” that she was convinced others must hear it too. “Knowing how I felt when I heard it, the meaning behind it, seeing what it did to every fireman who has heard it” are all reasons she cited for taking on the job of VHS chorus promoter.
In Freeport, the chorus participated in two events; a parade during the day and a banquet later that evening. What is most notable about the chorus’s inclusion in these events is that normally civilian groups are not invited to attend the convention, much less high school students. According to Conway, she and her father, 49-year VHFD veteran Clarence Conway, had to convince the Maine State Fire Fighters Federation to allow the girls into the convention. The Conways had help in this from the Freeport Fire Chief, who had heard the group sing at Owl’s Head.
According to the elder Conway, participation in the parade was an afterthought. The girls were first invited to sing at the banquet, and only later did they decide to create a float for the parade. The Vinalhaven contingent, including VHFD fire fighters David Arey, Anna’s father Brian Osgood and the Conways, was decorating its float two hours before the parade began on Saturday morning. On a flatbed adorned with red, white and blue bunting the chorus and director Amy Gardner rode through the parade singing “Amazing Grace” and carrying placards bearing the names of FDNY fire fighters who gave their lives on 9/11. When they stopped at the judges’ stand they sang “Our Heroes” a capella.
Their afterthought paid off.
The Vinalhaven float was later awarded the first place trophy as well as a cash prize of $300. Technically the Maine State Fire Fighters Federation could not give the trophy to a civilian group, and therefore awarded it to the Vinalhaven Fire Department. However, Clarence Conway felt that the VHFD never would have won the trophy if it hadn’t been for the girls, and “wanted to give the girls all the recognition.” As the senior VHFD member attending the event, he let the girls accept the trophy on behalf of the fire department.
“It’s good for them,” he said. “Usually the younger people don’t associate much with older people, but this was great. They are good little people and I had a tremendous good time with them.”
Chorus member Jessica Carleton, agreeing that the parade was a great experience, also noted the solemnity of the event, which could easily have been lost in the parade atmosphere.
“It was fun. We saw a lot of different kinds off fire trucks,” she said. “We felt as a group that Anna’s song needed to be heard other than on the island. Jeannie told us that this was an event honoring everyday heroes and we took it much more seriously after that.”
That evening, after an afternoon rehearsal, the chorus was back to perform again, this time at the convention banquet. They followed Rep. Tom Allen in the program and sang three songs; “Amazing Grace,” “One Wish,” and “Our Heroes,” for which Osgood was compelled to take four curtain calls.
According to Jeannie Conway, the girls were a hit.
“The chorus brought down the house,” she said. “The whole head table was crying. I knew [the girls] would be nervous, but it was their best performance ever.”
Of course, one can’t speak of the chorus’s talent without giving credit where credit is due.
“I’m sure a lot of this lies with Amy and how she has taught them to sing,” said Jeannie Conway. “She was coaching them on how to conserve their voices but give it their all.”
“Amy’s done a super job with those girls,” agreed Clarence Conway.
And how does the young writer-composer feel about sharing her music outside her community?
“It’s something nerve wracking, but I feel like I’m delivering the message I felt to everyone, because I’m sure everyone felt the same way I did [about Sept. 11]” said Osgood.
Seeing the reaction to “Our Heroes” outside their own community, and knowing that they elicited that reaction was a special feeling for the chorus members.
“At the banquet we were surrounded by people who dedicated their lives to protecting others. It made us proud to be the only high school kids there,” admitted Carleton.
Upon arrival home, the girls were given the traditional island welcome reserved for champions. Appropriately, a fire truck and the ambulance were waiting at the dock, sirens blaring, along with 20 or more fans, all congrat-ulating the girls on a job well done.
“It was a nice feeling to know the community was proud of us for what we had done,” said Carleton. “We didn’t think it was that big a thing. We just went and we sang.”
What lies ahead for the chorus and Osgood’s song?
“I want to take [my song] as far as it can go,” said Osgood, “as long as people understand why. I didn’t write this song to get popular.”
Jeannie Conway has not given up her job as promoter yet. She’s sent videotapes of the girls’ Owl’s Head performance to NBC and the Pentagon. An NBC producer called back asking for copies to give to CBS and ABC as well. The Federation is also looking into arranging a performance for the FDNY in New York later this year.
“They have so many connections that they don’t even know they have,” said Jeannie Conway. “The sky’s the limit. I don’t think the girls realize what they got into [when they were allowed to perform at the convention.] I wish I could make them understand.”
After having held every position in the VHFD at least once, and some twice, over his 49 years of experience, Clarence Conway now works in logistics and public relations for the department, and has joined his daughter in her quest for “Our Heroes” to be heard.
“I think those girls should be heard and that song should be heard,” he said. “Being in logistics and PR now, it’s not only my job, it’s my duty.”
And as we have seen, especially since Sept. 11, 2001, our everyday heroes have a strong sense of duty.