In December 2008, Iwo Jima veteran Gordon Schnulle opened a large cardboard carton that arrived at his Elgin residence. Over 100 letters spilled from the carton. They were letters of thanks from local high school students. Always a faithful marine, Schnulle wrote back to each student.
Schnulle was one of the Elgin veterans honored by the Veterans History Project in 2008. The Gail Borden Public Library partnered with Elgin Academy in cooperation with local veterans to accomplish a significant and memorable endeavor. This intergenerational project paired 8th grade students as interviewers with WWII, Korean and Vietnam veterans. For some veterans, it was the first time they told their stories.
“Overall, this project has the greatest impact that I’ve witnessed in my 31 years as an educator. I’m encouraged by the way the students had such tremendous respect for the veterans and their actions,” said John Fleener, Elgin Academy media instructor whose eighth grade students partnered on the Veterans History Project. “We talked about the interviews afterwards. It has brought history to life in our classroom, a reality that you can’t get from reading a book or watching TV. You need to be in the same room. It has affected the children and the veterans. It’s part of a therapy for the veterans who are so thankful that someone is there to listen to them. In turn, the students thank the veterans for what they have done to keep our freedom, paid for at a high price. This process has bonded our classroom because we are all experiencing the same impact of these stories.”
“At times the students have tears running down their cheeks as the veterans tell their stories. Sometimes everyone in the room is crying,” said Sara Sabo, project director and Gail Borden Public Library assistant director of adult services. “This is my homecoming,” the Vietnam War Veteran Benny Chapman said of his story-telling experience. The Purple Heart recipient was one of 20 veterans of WWII, Korea and Vietnam whose stories were documented. Chapman waited a long time for his story to be told.
The United States Congress created the Veterans History Project in 2000 to collect and preserve stories of wartime service. These collections of first-hand accounts are archived in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress for use by researchers and to serve as an inspiration for generations to come. Sara Sabo gathered extensive information, photographs, and letters, and advised the students on how to conduct interviews. John Fleener taught the teens how to film, scan photos and edit the videos. The materials along with the hour-long interviews were sent to the Library of Congress.
Veterans History posters, banners and displays were created by Sara Sabo and the library’s graphic artists Debbie Huffman and Jackie Diaz. A large tent was erected and decorated to replicate a WWII soldier’s tent on a South Pacific Island. The structure housed benches and a television on which visitors could view the Veterans History videos. Assistance from Liz Marston at the Elgin Area Historical Society and artifacts on loan from the Trader John’s Outpost Army Surplus store, as well as personal articles from local veterans, enhanced the experience at the library during A Tapestry of Freedom from February through May, 2008 and again in November, 2008 in honor of the opening of the Veterans Memorial.
In addition to providing downloadable teacher resources from the website, Sara Sabo distributed DVDs to local schools for Veterans Day in 2008. One school suspended its curriculum so that students could watch the interviews, write an essay about a veteran’s story, then write a letter to the veteran. Every Elgin public and private school history department now has its own copy to use for years to come.
VHP was a major thread funded by A Tapestry of Freedom, the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) grant that was awarded to the Gail Borden Public Library in 2008. The veterans’ videotaped interviews and “What Freedom Means to Me” can be viewed on the Tapestry website at www.gailborden.info/freedom.
National statistics show that WWII veterans are dying at an average rate of 1,000 per day. In fact, Veterans History participant and Elgin resident Art Richoz passed away only a few months after his interview. The Veterans History Project will prove its lasting value, honoring Elgin’s men and women who served to preserve our nation’s freedom.