A UW professor inspires students to honor WW II soldiers.
About one week before midterms last fall, Mary Louise Roberts, a UW history professor, adjusted her course plans for History 357: The Second World War.
Roberts had received an email from Joel Houot, one of dozens of French volunteers who “godfather,” or adopt, graves of American soldiers, tending to the Épinal American Cemetery in France. He wanted to know more about his soldier, Robert Kellett, a Wisconsin native who died in an area near Épinal during World War II.
Thinking she would assign the research as extra credit for a student who volunteered, Roberts presented the email, translated from French, to the class. “Everyone wanted to do it — literally every hand went up,” she says.
Two weeks after Roberts requested more names, the director of Épinal’s gravesite adoption program sent a list of thirty fallen Wisconsin soldiers. The students began their research by studying microfilm at the Wisconsin Historical Society, reaching out to other libraries and museums, and reading databases, old newspaper clippings, and Army files.
“When the students began to read these [files] — boom!” says Roberts, whose research focuses on World War II and France. “These were boys who grew up in a neighboring town or their own town. I think the war really hit home in a new way to them.”
Elizabeth Braunreuther x’16, a history major, was one of the students who researched Kellett. She learned that the soldier was from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, and according to newspaper clippings from that city’s public library, he was twenty-one when killed in combat. He had married less than a year before his death.
“It was all just very real [to me] because of how young he was,” she says.
The class assembled its research into a booklet, which now travels the nation with a U.S. Army representative for the Past Conflict Repatriations Branch, which invites citizens to honor soldiers who went missing in past wars.
Roberts visited the cemetery in Épinal earlier this year, and she emailed each student a photo of his or her soldier’s gravestone. She plans to continue the project when she teaches the course again next fall, and, if funding allows, she hopes to take two students with the best entries to the cemetery. “There are a lot more boys from Wisconsin who are buried there,” she says.
Published in the Winter 2014 issue