How students' project honors suburban heroes at Pearl Harbor and beyond
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The date of Dec. 7, 1941, still lives in infamy. However, the individual sacrifices of the 2,335 military personnel killed in that day's attack on Pearl Harbor can be lost in the crush of more than 60 million people killed worldwide during World War II.
That's not the case at Rotolo Middle School in Batavia, where eighth-graders in teacher Julia Schaeffer's social studies classes tell the stories of "the soldier behind the name" by creating a virtual memorial to accompany the Kane County Veterans Memorial. They've chronicled every local man and woman who died serving our country, whether on a ship at Pearl Harbor, on a beach in France, on a hilltop in Korea, in the jungles of Vietnam or on a road in Iraq or Afghanistan. More than 200 students have worked on the project, which began in spring 2014 during discussions about the Vietnam War.
"We were looking at the Vietnam War Memorial and they have a virtual site," Schaeffer recalls. Her students thought the same could be done for veterans from Kane County.
"Why don't we make something that lets everybody see who they are?" student Tyrone Whitmore-Wilson remembers students thinking at the time. Now a junior at the Illinois Math and Science Academy in Aurora, the 16-year-old and several of Schaeffer's former students returned last week to Room 203 at Rotolo for a mini-reunion of students who have worked on the massive project.
"We're connecting more with the hero. It's not just, 'Oh, he died and there's his name,'" says Keeley Sebold, 15, now a sophomore at Batavia High School. "What was their life about?"
Students spent their free time, even their vacation time, photographing graves, reading archived newspaper clippings, studying maps, drawing sketches, checking out old yearbooks and learning the details of the men and women from Kane County who have given their lives serving this country.
"None of this was my idea other than, 'What if ... ?'" says Schaeffer, who notes that depending on their unique talents, some students researched, others chronicled the information, a few tapped into their art abilities and several worked on the methods to link the information to the website and a marker at the memorial, which is on the grounds of the Kane County Government Center, 719 S. Batavia Ave. in Geneva. "It's their project. They follow their ideas."
Using her laptop, Keeley pulls up information about Spanish-American War veteran Edgar D. Beebe, who was killed on May 16, 1898, and is buried in Elgin's Bluff City Cemetery. A color photograph accompanies the entry for Walter Howard Backman, who was killed in the Pearl Harbor attack while serving aboard the U.S.S. Oklahoma. In 2015, Marine Cpl. Sara Medina of Aurora was killed in a helicopter crash during a humanitarian mission in Nepal on May 12, and a colored-pencil likeness of her is included on the students' website. Visitors can click on a link to add more information.
The website lists eight men from Kane County who died in the Pearl Harbor attack: Francis S. Alberovsky, Robert William Apple, Walter Howard Backman, Bruce Dean Bradley, Leslie Phillip Delles, Eugene James Fitzsimmons, Richard Frederick Jacobs and Charles LeRoy Thompson. The eighth-graders rushed to get everything in shape by today's 76th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, but students note sadly that the site can be updated with future casualties from future wars.
"I was blown away. It's just amazing the amount of information they are putting together," says Jacob Zimmerman, superintendent of the Kane County Veterans Assistance Commission, an independent governmental body that serves local veterans and gave permission for the class to add a machine-readable code near the monument so that visitors can use their smartphones to link to the virtual memorial.
"This is something greater than a project and just turning it in," says Ethan Jonke, 16, who worked alongside fellow Batavia High School sophomore Cameron Green, 16, to do much of the computer coding. Maggie Baranick, 14, a freshman at Rosary High School in Aurora, immersed herself in World War II research. Former Rotolo students, such as Nathan White, 14, a sophomore at Batavia High School, started work that is being finished by eighth-graders such as Kersten McQuillan, Eden Sagarin, Lucas Blair and Haley Rodriguez.
"These people are real people who died for our country. We want to make sure they're not just soldiers," says Sydney Despe, 14, a freshman at Batavia High School, noting that the dead include husbands and wives, moms and dads, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, and friends.
"When I'm old and looking back on my life, I'm not going to remember the grades," says Kristin Wolford, 16, now a junior at the Illinois Math and Science Academy. "I'm going to remember the impact I had, even if it's just one person."
Eighth-graders have choices for how to spend their time, and Haley, a 13-year-old class member from Geneva, said she wants to spend time on this project. "I thought it was my responsibility as an American citizen to help recognize the men and women who fought for this country and died," Haley says. "They gave up their lives to make sure that everyone in this country and possibly another country was safe, so I felt that it was the least I could do."
Students say the personal touch changes the way they look at war.
"You can look at that stuff in a textbook, but it doesn't reconcile with your brain," says eighth-grader Eden, 13. Knowing the history of wars where Americans died is just part of the lesson.
"It's better," Tyler says, "to know they'll be remembered."