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Sixty-nine years after its namesake was shot down over the jungles of Burma during World War II, ground was broken Tuesday for Capt. Walter Francis Duke Elementary School in Leonardtown.

The $27 million school with room for 674 students is scheduled to be completed in April 2015 and to be open for classes that fall.

“What a journey it has been. It has been a remarkable journey,” said Michael Martirano, superintendent of schools.

The St. Mary’s County commissioners held a controversial Christmas Eve meeting in 2008 to vote to buy 172 acres off Hollywood Road and Cemetery Road for $5.3 million, intended for a new elementary school, a new middle school, a new library and recreational fields. The plans for a new library were later dropped.

Commission President Jack Russell (D) presided over the board of commissioners that bought the land, and Tuesday he thanked Thomas A. Mattingly Sr., former county commissioner, for bringing the property up for consideration. “He was the driving force for us buying this land,” Russell said, and he asked the audience to give Mattingly a round of applause “for all the hell he caught.”

Land appraisals made on the property the year before placed its value between $3.6 million and $4 million.

The board of education voted in April to name the new school after Capt. Walter Francis Duke, after his remains and P-38 plane were found last December in cleared jungle in Burma, today’s Myanmar. The family is still waiting for his remains to be returned for burial at the family plot in the Old St. Aloysius Cemetery.

“I feel so honored to have this school named after Walter,” said Duke’s sister, Angela Hicks. And for those others who did not return from military service, “we’re honoring all of them today,” she said.

“The naming of this school ... is simply just meant to be,” Martirano said. “Capt. Walter Francis Duke is a true son of St. Mary’s County.” Martirano said school names tend to be shortened after some time and he does not want that to happen to this school. “It’s going to be a real pet peeve of mine,” he said, to use the school’s full name.

Duke, a Leonardtown native, joined the Royal Canadian Air Force after graduating from St. Mary’s Academy in 1940 and then joined the U.S. Army Air Corps after the country entered World War II following the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor.

Del. John Bohanan (D-St. Mary’s) called Duke “a young man from this community who went on to become an extraordinary pilot and indeed a hero.”

Duke was credited with destroying 19 enemy aircraft and was considered Maryland’s leading air ace before he went missing in action on June 6, 1944. Duke was circling back from a mission to locate his wingman when he was lost.

His remains and aircraft were located on Dec. 6, 2012, and the Army collected DNA samples from the family to confirm his identity.

J.A. Scheibel won the $23.9 million construction project for the new elementary school, which will be modeled on Evergreen Elementary School in California. However, unlike Evergreen, which is tucked in the back of the Wildewood neighborhood, Capt. Walter Francis Duke Elementary School will be plainly visible from Hollywood Road, Martirano said.

Timeline for a new school

• May 2006: St. Mary’s County Commissioner Thomas A. Mattingly Sr. (D) suggests the county’s possible acquisition of the 172-acre Hayden Farm property near Leonardtown. The commissioners consider the purchase in closed sessions.

• Dec. 24, 2008: County commissioners vote 4-1, with Commissioner Larry Jarboe (R) against, to purchase the 172 acres for $5.3 million. Property appraisals made in 2007 ranged between $3.6 million and $4 million. Plans are to build a new elementary school, a new middle school, a new library and new recreational fields.

• April 28, 2009: St. Mary’s County takes ownership of the property with the intention to open the new elementary school by August 2013.

• November 2011: St. Mary’s County commissioners drop plans for a new Leonardtown library at the Hayden site, at a cost estimated at $16 million, opting for a renovation at the library’s current location for $1.8 million.

• March 12, 2012: Leonardtown annexes Hayden property, enabling connection to central water and sewer.

• May 2012: St. Mary’s school board requests 40 acres of the property be deeded over for an elementary and middle school. Commissioners deed over 16 acres instead.

• April 10, 2013: School board selects Capt. Walter Francis Duke Elementary School as the name of new 674-student capacity school, named after World War II pilot from Leonardtown lost June 6, 1944, over Burma.

• Oct. 8, 2013: Ground broken for Capt. Walter Francis Duke Elementary School, budgeted at $27 million, with the school scheduled to open in August 2015.