Standing on Omaha Beach, Wagner students experience the impact of D-Day

Members of the Wagner College choir explore Omaha Beach in Normandy. (Photo courtesy of Jade Schoenfeld)

By Claire Regan

Wagner students Jade Schoenfeld, Tahlia Colon, Miriam Lupu and Ash Nellis gather on Omaha Beach. (Photo by Jade Schoenfeld)

The alma mater took on new meaning as the Wagner College Choir performed it overlooking Omaha Beach in Normandy last month during an 80th anniversary the anniversary of D-Day, the bloody conflict that claimed the lives of 4,400 soldiers and became a turning point in World War II.

“Beautiful on a hill overlooking the sea” rang out from half a dozen other sites in France as well throughout the eight-day itinerary, which was inspired by an Intermediate Learning Community (ILC) course ) supported by Dr. Lori Weintrob, Professor in the Department of History and Director of the Wagner College Holocaust Center, and Dr. Thomas Juneau, Director of Choral Activities and Vocal Studies.

“The alma mater commemorates all those in the Wagner College community who have sacrificed in the name of country, friends and loved ones,” explained Juneau. “The students are always proud to sing their alma mater, and this moment was very powerful because they felt that connection to the sacrifices made throughout history that helped give them the world they love to live in.”

Wagner senior Frank Betancourt composed the hymn in 1941 for a campus magazine. It became so popular with students that it was designated the college’s alma mater in 1949.

Conducted by Dr. Thomas Juneau, the Wagner College Choir performs at the Eglise Sainte Trinite de Falaise. (Photo by Valerica Schoenfeld)

Other pieces performed by the choir at cathedrals and sites in the French cities of Caen, Chartres, Falaise and Paris were selected for their historical and cultural significance and rehearsed over the past year in preparation for the trip.

Omaha Beach, the epicenter of the June 6, 1944 Allied invasion of German-occupied France, was the first stop on the Wagner tour on May 21. Gray skies and a strong wind reflected the weather of that fateful day eight decades ago when the choir performed following a wreath-laying ceremony.

“Such a similar atmosphere made it all too easy to imagine the events that took place on that very sand where soldiers our age fought steadfastly for freedom and justice,” reflected Olivia West ’26.

“When we got to the beach, it was quiet and cold,” said Jessica Dantoni ’26. “The only sound was the waves crashing on the shore as the tide was low, reminding us of the D-Day landing.”

The choir performs in the Eglise de la Madeleine, Paris. (Photo courtesy of Jade Schoenfeld)

“As I looked out over the horizon, I could almost see the huge fleet of ships, soldiers, sailors and airmen all united for one mission,” said Shane Gallagher ’27. Among them was his great-uncle, Frank Petillo, who survived the conflict after being trapped for 24 hours under an overturned landing craft.

Dr. Thomas Juneau leads the choir in a performance outside the Shoah Holocaust Memorial in Paris. (Photo courtesy of Jade Schoenfeld)

Watching students experience history in a personal way has been especially rewarding as a teacher, Weintrob said. “They felt connected to the past and the sacrifices of the soldiers.”

Jade Schoenfeld ’25, one of the 40 members of the choir, relished the experience of singing in three majestic French cathedrals.

“We had very challenging repertoire for all three concerts and we came together so beautifully as a group,” she said. “Our sound echoed through every cathedral, down to the people outside in the streets.”

In France, the Wagner group also paid tribute to the 77,000 Jews deported from French territories, including 11,000 children. They visited the Shoah Holocaust Museum, the Museum of Jewish Art and History and Le Marais, the Jewish Quarter of Paris.

Thirteen students who participated in the tour as part of the Expanding Your Horizons program prepared for it by reading about Sgt. William A. Morris Jr., a black D-Day soldier who was a Wagner graduate. His daughter, Dolores Morris, joined the students for the trip.

The tour group also included adjunct professors Matthew Zabiegala, conductor, and Giovanni Longo, accompanist, and a group of parents, alumni, and community members with close ties to D-Day veterans. Voice faculty member Julia Lamon assisted with management students, and voice faculty member Hilary Baboukis served as translator and concert manager.

Choir leaders included Ainsley Armstrong ’24, past president; Victoria Dimino ’25, president and head of alto section; Jade Schoenfeld ’25, vice president; Molly Nemirow ’25, secretary; Willow Fallon ’25, soprano section leader and Jaylen Gray ’24, tenor/bass section leader.

Student soloists were Sarah Sweeney ’24, Jade Schoenfeld ’25, Caleb Ullian ’27, Grant Anderson ’24, Tahlia Colon ’27, Isabel Shikhman ’26 and Victoria Dimino ’25.

Gathered on Omaha Beach are, from left, Dr. Thomas Juneau, Grant Anderson, Edward Matons, Shane Gallagher, Jaylen Gray and Dr. Lori Weintrob. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Lori Weintrob)

The group enjoyed lighter moments, which included walks along the Seine River, a river cruise, a guided tour of Paris and visits to the Musée d’Orsay and the Eiffel Tower.

“The experience taught me that the power of history is not just knowing the facts,” Jaylen Gray ’24 summed up. “It’s about remembering the people and what they stood for in history.”

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