Syracuse University Magazine

Heroic Service

Heroic Service


President Obama awards the nation's highest military honor posthumously to World War I veteran and alumnus William Shemin

By Ryan Van Slyke

For more than a decade, Elsie Shemin-Roth ’50 worked tirelessly to ensure her late father, William Shemin ’24, would be recognized for the selfless, life-saving acts of heroism he carried out on a World War I battlefield and receive the Medal of Honor, the U.S. military’s highest decoration for valor. On June 2, in a ceremony at the White House, Shemin-Roth’s efforts were finally rewarded when President Barack Obama bestowed posthumously the Medal of Honor on U.S. Army Sergeant William Shemin. Joined by a large contingent of family members, Shemin-Roth and her sister, Ina Shemin Bass ’53, accepted the medal on behalf of their father, a graduate of the New York State College of Forestry at Syracuse University who is believed to be the University’s first and only graduate to earn the Medal of Honor.

“Well, Elsie, as much as America meant to your father, he means even more to America,” Obama said in his remarks. “It takes our nation too long sometimes to say so—because Sergeant Shemin served at a time when the contributions and heroism of Jewish Americans in uniform were too often overlooked. But William Shemin saved American lives. He represented our nation with honor. And so it is my privilege, on behalf of the American people, to make this right and finally award the Medal of Honor to Sergeant William Shemin.”

Obama also bestowed a posthumous Medal of Honor on U.S. Army Private William Henry Johnson, an African American from Harlem who served in the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment, for his heroic efforts on the Western front. “They both left us decades ago, before we could give them the full recognition they deserved,” Obama said. “But it’s never too late to say thank you.”


Sergeant William Shemin (second from the left) rests with other soldiers in the grass by a pup tent.


Soldiers stand near a bridge, France, 1918.

Saving Lives Under Fire
Imagine, nearly a century ago, the vast fields of northern France during the Great War—earthen trenches for miles, overwhelming German fire across the Vesle River, and your comrades falling victim to enemy bullets. Sergeant Shemin, a 19-year-old soldier from Bayonne, New Jersey, was thrown into that fearful situation from August 7-9, 1918, as a rifleman fighting with Company G, 2nd Battalion, 47th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division of the American Expeditionary Forces. Engrained with a commitment to brotherhood, Shemin repeatedly exposed himself to heavy machine gun and rifle fire, crossing out of the trenches into no-man’s land three times to save wounded comrades. After the officers and senior non-commissioned officers became casualties to this terror, Shemin took control of the platoon and displayed quick instincts and impressive initiative in battle. He was wounded by a machine gun bullet that pierced his helmet and lodged behind his left ear and also took shrapnel to the back. The Allied American-French forces fought valiantly and successfully pushed the Germans back across the Vesle and Aisne rivers, eliminating the threat of Paris falling to the Germans. Within the larger Allied victory of the Aisne-Marne campaign, Sergeant Shemin exemplified the highest degree of valor, bravery, and loyalty to his wounded and fallen comrades, which resulted in Shemin being awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second-highest decoration for combat valor.

William SheminAfter his honorable discharge in 1919, Shemin returned to Syracuse, having been previously stationed locally with the 47th Infantry Regiment. He enrolled in the New York State College of Forestry at Syracuse University (now the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry) and graduated in 1924 with a bachelor’s degree in forestry. While at Syracuse, Shemin showed great promise in the classroom, as well as on the fields of friendlier strife, playing football and lacrosse. After graduating, Shemin launched a landscaping and gardening business in the Bronx, and he and his wife, Bertha, raised three children, Elsie, Ina, and Emanuel “Manny” Shemin ’52. He passed away in 1973 at age 77. “He taught us all to always give back more than you are asked to do,” Elsie said at a press conference in St. Louis after being informed by President Obama that her father would receive the Medal of Honor. “From my father came this wonderful generosity and this wonderful sense of honor.”

A Family Legacy at SU
Sergeant Shemin left a long legacy of service to the country and a legacy of Orange pride at Syracuse University. All three of his children earned Syracuse degrees: Ina, from the College for Human Development; Manny, from the College of Arts and Sciences; and Elsie, from Utica College of Syracuse University. The late Manny Shemin, a University Trustee from 1997-2009, met his wife, Rhoda Lee Zisman Shem­in ’53, on campus, and their daughter, Leslie Shemin-Lester ’84, is an alumna who serves on the Dean’s Advisory Council of the College of Visual and Performing Arts (VPA). Four of Sergeant Shemin’s great-grandchildren are alumni: Rachel Forman ’05, William Cass ’08 (co-chair of the University’s Metro New York Leadership Council), Samuel Cass ’13, and Scott Bass ’15.

The Shemin family has been incredibly generous to the University over the past 50 years. A highlight is the Shem­in Family Lecture Series. Created with the support of Manny and Rhoda Shemin, and their daughter, Leslie, the lecture series is a collaborative effort between VPA and the Martin J. Whitman School of Management that brings young alumni and other industry professionals to campus to meet students and help them understand the business of fashion. The philanthropy of Manny and Rhoda Shemin has supported scholarships for Whitman students and helped fund the 300-seat Emanuel and Rhoda Shem­in Auditorium in the Shaffer Art Building in 1990. They also donated funds to build the Rhoda Shemin Student Lounge in the Winnick Hillel Center for Jewish Life, and provided funding in 1995 for the Manny Shemin Resource Room in the Stevenson Education Center at Manley Field House for the academic support of student-athletes. Their service to the University is also evident in Manny’s 12-year tenure on the Board of Trustees, including nine years on its executive committee and service on the academic affairs and facilities committees.

After serving in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War, Manny created Shem­in Nurseries from his father’s retail nursery in the Bronx in 1955. The company pioneered the concept of the international nursery and garden supply distribution center and became the world’s largest wholesale horticulture distribution business, with centers throughout the United States, Canada, and Holland. Manny Shemin put his professional knowledge to use as a contributor to campus beautification; over the last decade of his life, he annually selected 1,000 daffodil and 200 tulip bulbs from the Netherlands and donated them to the University. “Manny was a thoughtful person and successful businessman with an engaging personality,” says Louis G. Marcoccia ’68, G’69, executive vice president and chief financial officer. “I always enjoyed our conversations about University matters.”

Marcoccia’s sentiments about the Shemin family are shared by Thomas J. Foley, executive associate dean for institutional advancement at the Whitman School. Foley recalls how Manny’s passion for landscaping and plants was also transferred to SU Athletics. For example, Manny donated dozens of trees that frame the athletic fields around Manley Field House. “Manny was the salt of the Earth; his father’s values were instilled in him and he passed those values on to future generations,” Foley says. “The Shemin family [four generations of SU alumni] epitomizes what you hope a Syracuse University family would be. They became part of the SU community and we became part of their philanthropic fabric.”

Before passing away in 2009, Manny also served on the Corporate Advisory Board of the Whitman School. Both he and Rhoda were proud supporters of the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities, a national initiative run by the Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF) at Syracuse University, designed to offer cutting-edge, experiential training in entrepreneurship and small business management to post-9/11 veterans with service-related disabilities. “Syracuse University has a long and proud history of helping veterans and our military personnel succeed when they come back from service,” says J. Michael Haynie, vice chancellor for veteran and military affairs at the University and executive director of the IVMF. “We are honored to include Sergeant William Shemin and his family of Syracuse alumni as integral members of the larger story of America’s veterans, the U.S. military, and Syracuse University.”

Overcoming Injustice
There were many influential forces pushing to award the Medal of Honor to Sergeant Shemin, including pressure from veterans’ groups and U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) investigators. Over the past several years, the DoD has been investigating, back as far as World War I, instances of combat heroism that would warrant awarding the Medal of Honor—but were not recognized due to possible discrimination based on race or religion. One of the cases under review was that of William Shem­in, who was Jewish. With bipartisan support in 2011, the U.S. Congress passed the William Shemin Jewish World War I Veterans Act, signed into law by President Obama. It allowed the DoD to investigate any discrimination in the designation of awards to Jewish service members and led to Shemin finally receiving the Medal of Honor. Elsie Shemin-Roth spearheaded this campaign, joined by U.S. Congressman Blaine Luetkemeyer of Missouri and U.S. senators Claire McCaskill and Roy Blunt of Missouri, Dean Heller of Nevada, and John Boozman of Arkansas. “Discrimination should never play a role when our country pays tribute to extraordinary acts of courage and selfless sacrifice,” McCaskill said in a statement after learning President Obama would honor Shemin’s heroic actions. “I couldn’t be prouder that we were able to correct these past injustices and that William Shemin and other Jewish heroes will get the recognition they deserve, and the national gratitude they earned.”

In reflecting on the success in having her father’s story finally told, Elsie Shemin-Roth said it can be summed up in 11 words: “Discrimination hurts. A wrong has been made right. All is forgiven.” «

Patrick M. Jones and Wayne Westervelt G’07 of the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at SU contributed to this report.


President Obama presents Ina Shemin Bass (left) and Elsie Shemin-Roth with the Medal of Honor for their father, U.S. Army Sergeant William Shemin, at the White House on June 2.

U.S. Department of Defense photo by Lisa Ferdinando; additional photos courtesy of the Shemin family

Memorable Family Moment

June 2 was a day to remember for the Shemin family. Three generations of the family gathered for the Medal of Honor ceremony at the White House, where they were welcomed by White House and military officials, and others.

President Barack Obama met in the Oval Office with Elsie Shemin-Roth ’50 and Ina Shemin Bass ’53 before the ceremony, where he presented the two daughters of the late William Shemin ’24 with the Medal of Honor for risking his life to save others during a 1918 battle with German troops in northern France. Along with the visit to the White House, family members were also guests at the Pentagon the following day.

In his remarks, President Obama cited Elsie Shemin-Roth for her theory about what inspired William Shemin to serve in World War I. “He was the son of Russian immigrants, and he was devoted to his Jewish faith,” Obama said, quoting Shemin-Roth. “‘His family lived through the pogroms,’ she says. ‘They saw towns destroyed and children killed. And then they came to America. And here they found a haven—a home, success—and my father and his wife both went to college. All that, in one generation! That’s what America meant to him. And that’s why he’d do anything for this country.’”


Members of the Shemin family—all Syracuse alumni—who attended the Medal of Honor presentation at the White House include (front row, left): Ina Shemin Bass ’53 (holding the Medal of Honor) and Elsie Shemin-Roth ’50 (William Shemin’s two daughters); back row (from left): Scott Bass ’15 (great-grandson of William Shemin), William Cass ’08 (great-grandson), Rachel Forman ’05 (great-granddaughter), Seth Forman ’04 (Rachel’s husband), Leslie Shemin-Lester ’84 (granddaughter) and Sam Cass ’13 (great-grandson).

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