*This is part of a special internet edition*
KANE – On Oct. 3, 1997, Ken VanGiesen, a junior, took Erin Sirianni, a sophomore, to the Homecoming Dance at Kane Area High School.
They've been a couple ever since.
"I was 15 and he was 16," Erin said in recalling the dance on a date that has become their anniversary. "We started dating and have been together since then. We just fit together."
A year later, they again went to the Homecoming Dance. This time as a senior, Ken was crowned as the Homecoming King. He was a three-year letterman in football at Kane High and was chosen to play center in the Big 30 Classic game in 1999.
After high school, VanGiesen joined the Pennsylvania Army National Guard and went to basic training. While he was completing his basic training, Sirianni was a senior at Kane High School. She graduated in 2000. Just a short time later, both Sirianni and Army-trained VanGiesen entered Edinboro University together as freshmen.
Sirianni said they completed about 2 1/2 years of college at Edinboro when VanGiesen, still active with the National Guard unit in Kane, was deployed in Germany. It was the first of four overseas deployments for VanGiesen, who was killed July 18 while serving with the Guard in Afghanistan.
Sirianni said VanGiesen never returned to college after he came back from Germany. However, he did work at a restaurant in Erie to be with Sirianni as she completed her degree in developmental disabilities in December 2004.
For the past seven years, Sirianni has been a residential life instructor at the Barber National Institute in Erie. This facility serves both adults and children who are mentally and physically disabled.
VanGiesen and Sirianni purchased a house together four years ago along Gorman Drive in Millcreek Township near Erie where Sirianni works. VanGiesen was assigned to the Kane unit of National Guard, but worked full-time as a mechanic technician at the new Guard complex in Cambridge Springs near Erie.
Earlier this year, VanGiesen received just a 10-day notice that he was being deployed in Afghanistan with a Guard unit based in Williamstown and Philadelphia. Sirianni said he left for training in March and went to Afghanistan April 3.
"He said he'd be back in November or December," she said.
Sirianni said that VanGiesen was deployed overseas for about four years of their 14-year relationship.
"He was patriotic and that's what he wanted to do," Sirianni said in reference to his deployments, which rank among the longest ever among members of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. "He wanted to go to all of them."
Sirianni said VanGiesen was a member of the American Legion Riders and took part in patriotic motorcycle parades and visits to veterans' hospitals. He originally had a Honda motorcycle, Sirianni said. She said he then purchased a new Harley-Davidson motorcycle to "keep up with his friends."
She said VanGiesen has been unable to spend a lot of time on his Harley. Last year, he underwent surgery at St. Vincent's Hospital in Erie after his Crohn's Disease flared up. Then came the unexpected deployment to Afghanistan.
Erin is one of four children of Frank and Sherry Shubon Sirianni, both Kane natives. Erin's siblings include Alison, Matt and Jeanna, who lived with Erin and Ken while she attended both Gannon University and Mercyhurst College in Erie.
All four Sirianni children have been born in different states because their father was serving in the U.S. Air Force. When Frank retired as a master sergeant in 1987, the family moved back to Kane and built a house along the Highland Road.
"I couldn't have picked a better mate for my daughter," Frank Sirianni said in describing his relationship with VanGiesen. "He has every quality you'd want. We thought of Ken as a son."
"We loved him a lot," Sherry Sirianni said. "We couldn't have known a better man."
Frank Sirianni this year spawned the idea for the Patriot Award to honor Kane High graduating seniors who are entering the military. Sirianni's concept began with the Kane Lions Club and was endorsed and supported by the Kane Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW). The first Patriot Award of $500 each went to seven who graduated from Kane High last month.
Erin said her longtime boyfriend was known for "putting others before himself."
"He had a lot of friends," she said. "Everyone liked him."
According to Erin, there are "four words to describe Ken-- football, hunting, fishing and Army."
She said VanGiesen often would hunt with his father, Tom VanGiesen of 137 Lincoln St., Kane. She said Ken also loved to fish and often fished for steelhead in Walnut Creek near their home in Erie County.
"There could be a blizzard or pouring down rain and he's be out there fishing," she said.
Erin said Ken was a devoted fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers. His favorite player and "idol" was Rocky Bleier, she said. When Bleier made a recent visit to Erie, Erin asked the former Steeler running back to sign a Bleier jersey owned by VanGiesen. Bleier obliged and also signed an American flag and a photo.
Erin said she and VanGiesen had a special relationship.
"I'd call him 'Kenny' to make him mad," Erin said with a grin. "He said he was called 'Kenny' when he was a child and wanted to be called 'Ken.'"
Erin said "a lot of people thought Kenny was a clown because he was always telling jokes."
"To me, it was annoying," she said with a smile. "That's because I had heard the same jokes a thousand times."
Pick up a copy of the Tuesday, July 26, 2011 edition of The Ridgway Record for more.