Pupils get a lesson in history from people who lived through it


November 10, 1999|By Heather Tepe | Heather Tepe,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

EYES FILLED with tears, voice trembling, Hugh M. Roper read aloud from a Western Union telegram sent 58 years ago: "Am safe. Unharmed." And below that message in his mother's handwriting: "Thank God for this."

"I'm sorry," Roper, 78, said to 13-year-old Chris Tucker. "This is extremely emotional for me. This is the first notice they had, five days after the attack."

Dated Dec. 12, 1941, the telegram was sent by Roper from Hawaii to his family in Baltimore to tell them that he had survived the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Chris and 44 other eighth-graders from Glenelg Country School came to Florence Bain Senior Center last week to hear about history from those who lived it.

The oral history program, "Where Were You When ," was started seven years ago by Judi Bard, program specialist for the Howard County Office on Aging, and David Weeks, now a high school humanities teacher at Glenelg Country School.

Bard recruited 24 senior citizens to participate in the program this year. They signed up to discuss topics ranging from the space program to Japanese- American internment camps.

Teachers Sandy Bishop and Charlie Stewart accompanied the pupils. Bishop says pupils benefit by learning history firsthand, in addition to reading a textbook.

"A lot of historical events come to life more through the reflections of the senior citizens," Bishop said. "The students have a chance to actually ask questions about what they're learning. There's a personality involved. They learn not just about the event, but about the person."

The eighth-graders prepared a list of 15 to 20 questions to ask during the interviews. They practiced in class by talking about what makes a good interview question and rehearsed with a classmate.

The young people will use the information they gathered to write a report. They will return to the Bain center and share their reports with the senior citizens Dec. 9.

Chris Tucker, dressed in blue blazer and red tie, looked as poised and professional as Tom Brokaw as he asked Roper for details about the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. It was Dec. 7, 1941 -- "A date," Roper said, quoting President Franklin D. Roosevelt, "which will live in infamy."

At the time of the attack, Roper was a corporal in the Army Air Corps, stationed at Hickam Field on Oahu. He was coming out of the mess hall, he said, as bombs were falling from planes flying so low that "we could actually see the faces of the pilots of the Japanese airplanes. They were that close and low to the ground."

Roper recalls shooting at the planes with a 30-30 rifle. He said the rifle could barely kill a deer. He knew the guns were no match for bombs but "we had to do something," he said.

"What did you do immediately after the attack?" Chris asked.

"I went to the hospital at Hickam Field," Roper said. "I was slightly wounded in my leg by shrapnel, but I never got treated at all. But I went to the hospital for it, and they asked me to help out."

The hospital's resources were stretched by the number of casualties. "We carried the wounded on doors," Roper said.

Roper brought other artifacts to share, including a copy of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin from the day of the bombing and a white cap with "Pearl Harbor Survivors Association" stitched across the side in gold thread.

Roper remembered how he sought shelter in the barracks during the two-hour assault.

"There was extensive shrapnel and flying glass," he said. "I was in a hallway. The man next to me was killed. You can't imagine the seriousness of an 18-year-old suddenly realizing that you're at war and the man next to you has just been killed."

Chris says he has had an interest in World War II "since I was young." His grandfather was in the war and also in Korea and Vietnam, he said.

"I always thought that was a defining moment for our country," Chris said, referring to World War II. "When that war began, we knew what our role in the rest of the century would be. It's a fascinating time."

Chris was thrilled about the interview. "It's an honor," he said. "What can you say? It's so exciting to hear how somebody felt and their accounts of how this thing occurred. It just makes you realize that you're very lucky to be living when we are now."

The pupils were impressed by many of the stories they heard.

Laura Walls and Greg Adams, both 13, interviewed Sumner Whittier, 88, about his experiences working with Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon.

Whittier was lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, administrator of Veterans Affairs under Eisenhower and national director of the Easter Seals Society for nine years.

His high-profile career brought him in contact with many celebrities, including Jack Benny, Jimmy Durante, Carol Burnett and Lucille Ball.

Whittier was awarded the Republican Senatorial Medal of Freedom for his work for the Republican Party.

"I seriously think that this has sparked my interest in politics," Laura said. "I really want to start helping make the country better and get involved."

Adam Halperin, 13, said he didn't know much about the McCarthy era before he interviewed Rachel Coleman.

"I found out that lots of people were scared of being accused of communism," Adam said. "There was lots of fear all over America."

Although he was nervous before the interview, Adam enjoyed the experience. "I thought it was going to be real uncomfortable, but it wasn't," he said.

Communication skills

Management consultant Kathryn Grad will lead a program called "CMS Communicates" from 7 p.m. to 8: 30 p.m. Tuesday at Clarksville Middle School, 6535 Trotter Road.

The program, sponsored by the Clarksville Middle School PTA, is aimed at helping middle school children and their parents improve communication skills.

Grad, who has a black belt in karate, will begin the evening with a karate demonstration.

Door prizes will be awarded throughout the evening.

The event is free.

Information: 410-531-1108.

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