PUTNAM COUNTY, Fla. – The name of Medal of Honor recipient Robert H. Jenkins Jr. will not be lost to history, despite the closing of the Putnam County middle school named in his honor.
The county’s School Board voted unanimously this week to rename Interlachen Elementary School as Robert H. Jenkins Jr. Elementary, ensuring the Black American hero’s legacy will live on for generations to come.
Jenkins was born in Interlachen in 1948 and enlisted in the Marines after graduating from high school.
The closure of the middle school was part of the district’s plan to close multiple schools in order to consolidate and build new ones.
But when community members -- particularly Leo and Shirley Grainger -- learned Jenkins Middle was among the schools slated to close, they got to work to save Jenkins’ name for posterity.
The Graingers have made it their life’s work to honor Jenkins, who graduated from Palatka Central Academy, an all-Black high school, in 1967. He lived close to Leo Grainger when the two were growing up.
In 1969, while fighting in the Vietnam War, Jenkins and another private first class, Fred Ostrom, were fighting off the enemy together in a ditch when a North Vietnamese soldier threw a hand grenade at them. Jenkins immediately pushed Ostrom to the ground and jumped on top of him to shield him from the blast, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.
Ostrom survived but Jenkins did not. He was 20 years old.
“He saved more than my life — I have two kids,” Ostrom later said.
The two couldn’t have been more different and weren’t particularly close, Ostrom told the Tampa Bay Times in 1996. Ostrom was a young white man from New York and Jenkins was Black from small-town Florida.
“So it didn’t matter to him, his complexion, because evidently, he was colorblind in his heart,” Leo Grainger said.
Leo Grainger said Jenkins’ sacrifice is an important part of Black history that should live on.
“That was an opportunity to bring his name home to Interlachen in which he was born in 1948,” Leo Grainger said.
The school board also voted to name newly merged Interlachen High School and C.H. Price Middle School, Interlachen Junior and Senior High School.