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A new elementary school in Leonardtown will be named after World War II fighter pilot Capt. Walter Francis Duke, if the St. Mary’s school board approves a recommendation by the superintendent.

The new school’s likely name — Capt. Walter Francis Duke Elementary School — was unveiled Wednesday evening to a room full of supporters at a school board meeting. As the name was announced, members of Duke’s family and their friends cheered and cried.

Duke was a member of a prominent Leonardtown family, and after his death at age 23 during World War II he remained a hero and fixture among his relatives and family friends. He was shot down over Burma during the war. An aircraft and remains discovered recently in what is now Myanmar may be his, family members have been told.

Eleanor Fearns, one of Duke’s sisters, attended the school board meeting along with several dozen other family members. She thanked the school naming committee and Superintendent Michael Martirano for recommending her brother’s name for the school.

School board members Wednesday each voiced their support for naming the school after Duke. The board will host a public hearing on Wednesday, March 13, for anyone to comment on the name choice before taking final action at its April 10 meeting.

Duke was a P-38 fighter pilot, and his successful missions in the Pacific theater were recounted in newspapers during the war. On June 6, 1944, his plane was shot down by a Japanese pilot over Burma after a mission when he returned to look for a missing wingman. Searches could not locate his downed plane at the time.

Last year a crashed P-38 along with its pilot’s remains were discovered in the jungle. Shortly after that, family members were contacted and told of the possibility that the remains were those of Duke. A campaign was soon launched to name the new elementary school after Duke.

Fearns said that she recently received a call from an Army official reiterating that the remains found in Burma had not yet been confirmed as Duke’s. Regardless, she said, this is an exciting time for the family.

Martirano called Duke “a true son of Leonardtown, a true son of St. Mary’s County.”

He said naming the school, which is expected to open in August 2015, for Duke makes sense, especially considering the county’s military history and the presence of Patuxent River Naval Air Station.

Al Gough of Leonardtown said naming the school after Duke would honor an entire generation, adding that more than 1,500 St. Mary’s residents fought in World War II at a time when the entire county’s population was less than 15,000.

“Capt. Duke and this generation are our heritage,” Gough said.

The St. Mary’s County Regional Airport at one time was named after Duke, and its terminal still bears the captain’s name.

“My dad grew up with Walter in Leonardtown,” said J. Harry “Chip” Norris III, former town mayor. He said his father did not talk about his own service during World War II, but did often refer to three servicemen from Leonardtown who died during that war.

“To [my father], they were the heroes of Leonardtown. They were the heroes of St. Mary’s County,” Norris said.

The school board solicited ideas for names earlier this school year.

As of early February, about two dozen names remained under consideration.

A dozen nominations were earlier rejected by a naming committee because the people who submitted the ideas didn’t respond when asked to submit the proper form, while another 15 were ruled out because they did not meet specified requirements.

A school naming committee worked to narrow the list further, before submitting three recommendations for the school name to Martirano — Capt. Walter Francis Duke, Heritage and McIntosh Run. Martirano in turn recommended Duke.

School policy says the name “should reflect the unique instructional aspects or the history of the facility or site.” Historic locations or figures and people who have made educational contributions can also be considered.

Martirano said that Duke’s service in the military can be incorporated into lessons about responsibility, trustworthiness, honor and other character traits, and his aviation skills would fit in nicely with other lessons.

The superintendent displayed an architectural rendering of the school with the proposed Duke name, along with the tagline “Where children soar.”

Still to be determined is the mascot of the school.

Other names that made the short list included Woodbury, Woodberry, Clarkes Rest, Newtown (or Newtowne), Joshua Barney, Mary Blades Miles and Hayden’s Heritage.

A redistricting committee was recently formed to look at what neighborhoods the school will draw from.

The committee is also considering whether to move some of the students who would eventually go to the new school to the Loveville trailer annex a year before the school opens to help relieve overcrowding at their current schools.

jyeatman@somdnews.com