By JAY PRICE
STATEN ISLAND ADVANCE
Tuesday, November 04, 2008
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — On game days in the fall, the campus drive that separates the Wagner College football stadium from the parking lot, across the street from the main campus, is abuzz with pedestrian and vehicular traffic, and the energy of college football.
But just off the macadam, up there between the stadium and the practice field, a cluster of trees provides a peaceful oasis amidst the hurly-burly; the sort of place that, with a bench or two to sit on, might invite quiet reflection.
Up there, where the school’s getting ready to dedicate a memorial to one of its own, it feels as far as anyplace ever could from the boredom and fear of the Marine base in Quang Tri Province, Vietnam, where Wagner football players Greg Knapp and Nick Lia met in the winter of 1968, when there was a war going on around them.
For Lia, an anchor of Wagner’s 1964 undefeated team and co-captain of the ‘65 team, it was his second tour in Vietnam. His first tour as a tank commander was interrupted when a rocket-propelled grenade penetrated the armored skin of his tank, peppering his legs with shrapnel.
Freed of their duties for a few hours, the two young officers played cards for money they couldn’t spend, and played touch football in a nearby rice paddy. That night, Lia slept in Knapp’s tent.
When they said their goodbyes the next day, Lia took a roll of film from his pocket. He wanted Knapp, who was going home a few weeks later, to carry it to his mother in St. George.
“He had this feeling he wasn’t going to get home,” Knapp’s saying as Wagner prepares to dedicate a memorial to Lia and the school’s war dead before Saturday’s home football game against Duquesne.
Two days after their touch football game, Feb. 2, 1968, word came down the line that Lia was dead. He and another Marine were killed in the “sympathetic discharge” of a claymore mine.
They buried him with military honors at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Grasmere, and it’s no exaggeration to say they might as well have buried the whole family that day, because his mother and father were never the same again.
He was the kind of hero America once loved best; the kind who overcame modest abilities with hard work, led by example, and deflected the credit when he could.
Now, 40 years later, Wagner is bringing him back to his alma mater, in the form of a larger-than life sculpture by Tottenville artist Gregory Perillo.
“He belongs here,” Wagner president Richard Guarasci says.
“It doesn’t matter if you were pro-war or anti-war ... whether you believe Nick Lia was betrayed by his country, or that we were fighting a wrong war ... he lived his life with respect, honor and responsibility.
“Nick seemed to me to represent the mission of the school ... high achievement, strong leadership, and public service ... in one man.
“He exercised true leadership, reaching out to people who weren’t high prestige and those who were, and bringing them together.”
“This is a love story,” Gene Mosiello says, and he’s right.
It’s the story of a man’s love for his school, his country, and his friends, and another man’s attempt to repay that devotion.
Mosiello’s the one who wouldn’t let Lia’s memory die.
“Nick was like a father to me, even though we were the same age,” he says. “He worked construction, and helped me pay for school.
“I made it in life because he cared about me.”
For as long as he’s been able, the Great Kills orthodontist has sponsored baseball and football teams, and whole leagues, in the name of the Nick Lia Youth Foundation. His dream is to see a learning center established in Lia’s name, where volunteers could do for somebody else’s kids what a teammate did for him.
For now, he’ll settle for sharing Perillo’s larger-than-life rendering in bronze, forged in the same Brooklyn foundry that produced the Iwo Jima Memorial, and the plaque the folks at Wagner will affix to its new home, up there in the quiet space behind the football stadium:
“U.S. Marine 1st Lt. Nicholas Anthony Lia, Wagner College Class of 1966, dedicated his life to the service of his country in both war and peace.
“Nick Lia was an inclusive leader, a talented student and athlete, and a generous and true friend to all. His legacy embodies the essence of the Wagner College Mission. This memorial is created to honor Nick Lia and all who have served our country, our city and our college with honor, dignity and generosity.”
Generations of young men and women have passed through Wagner’s classrooms and residence halls since Lia played and studied there, without bumping up against the story of the man memorialized in the Outstanding Defensive Player award at Homecoming.
“My hope,” Guarasci says, “is that our students will get to know who he was.”
Dedication ceremonies for the Nick Lia memorial at Wagner College are scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday in the Spiro Center, with the unveiling of the statue at noon, an hour before the season’s final football game against Duquesne.
By JAY PRICE