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History Beyond the Textbook

Date: August 11, 2015
The student researchers of StoryQuest record oral histories about the World War II stories of Chestertown veterans and the civilians who kept things going on the home front.

StoryQuest student leader Rachel Brown ’16, left, with researcher Sarah Graff ’18, in interview mode.StoryQuest student leader Rachel Brown ’16, left, with researcher Sarah Graff ’18, in interview mode.

CHESTERTOWN, MD—The day Sarah Graff, then a second-semester freshman, walked into the Washington College archives in the basement of Miller Library she little suspected how her future would be impacted by a box of old letters. A participant in the Dr. Davy H. McCall World War II History Project, Sarah was part of a group of Washington College students researching the impact of World War II on the campus and on the Chestertown community. Throughout the year, from fall semester 2014 through summer 2015, students scoured nearby archives and interviewed local residents about their wartime experiences on both the home front and the front lines, discovering personal stories of perseverance and patriotism tinged with loneliness, hometown pride, and school spirit. Along the way, these 20-something millennials forged a bond with members of the wartime generation, their elders by six or seven decades.

Sarah Graff’s connection to the past came from reading letters she found in the college archives addressed to a Miss Doris Thistle Bell. Curiosity piqued, Sarah dug deeper and discovered that “Thistle” Bell was a retired professional ballet dancer who built a fitness program for women at Washington College. She also worked as a secretary, Director of Residence Life for Women, and, briefly, as a history professor. During World War II, Doris Bell began writing letters to Washington College students serving in the armed forces. “The college was looking to re-enroll some of the students who still had a few years to go, so it was a recruitment effort,” explains Graff. “But I think it turned into so much more, especially for Doris Bell and ‘my boys.’” Those boys were Clayton McGran, a lieutenant serving in England, who would go on to graduate from Washington College in 1948; Frank Macielag, “a total flirt” serving in the Navy, whose adventures in Italy included meeting the Pope; and Clayton’s brother Bob McGran, a high school junior who was in the final push to Berlin at the war’s end. All three began and ended their letters with how much they appreciated the mail, especially notes with news of Washington College.

Created by the College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, this year’s StoryQuest program is named in honor of a chair emeritus of the Department of Economics at Washington College. Davy McCall is also a World War II veteran, a pioneer in documenting Eastern Shore history, and a generous friend and supporter of the StoryQuest program. The program that bears his name focuses on the wartime stories of both civilians and veterans from Chestertown, to show how a small American town participated in the war effort. In addition to collecting oral histories, the students digitally archived related documents.

Thanks to the work of the StoryQuest students, the letters from Doris Bell’s “pen pals,” as well as other “amazing treasures” (including a check signed by Eleanor Roosevelt), have been cataloged, preserved, and uploaded into a digital archive that can be easily accessed by future researchers. The search and rescue of World War II documents extended into the local community with a “documentation day” held in late April at the Kent County Public Library.  Residents came forth with letters from loved ones who served in the military, old photographs, ration coupons, militia i.d. cards, Kent County News articles about Chestertown’s munitions plant, and other memorabilia. Students were there to scan, digitize, and archive images of the items. 

This summer, six students participated in an intensive month-long StoryQuest program under the guidance of student leader Rachel Brown ’16, oral historian and Starr Center program manager Michael Buckley, and Chestertown RiverArts president Lani Seikaly. They learned skills such as how to craft effective questions, how to operate microphones and recording equipment, and how to transcribe and store oral histories. The students contacted local veterans and other potential interviewees and set off into nursing facilities, retirement communities, and nearby homes and farms to conduct interviews.   

Rogers Smith, from Church Hill, shared stories about serving in the local fire company as a youth during the war years. He poses with student interviewer Graff.Rogers Smith, from Church Hill, shared stories about serving in the local fire company as a youth during the war years. He poses with student interviewer Graff.Graff says she was nervous at the start. “I’m good at small talk, but to ask someone about their personal stories which could pull up bad memories, seemed a bit difficult for me,” she says. ”But ultimately, she adds, “you really do grow attached to the people you interview. They really tell you their stories, and it’s never what you would read in a textbook. There are people carrying history around with them, and often times its history that never gets recorded.” Interviewee Mary Wood, for example, recounted how she used to keep chickens in the bedroom of her apartment during the war.  When the realtor appeared unannounced one day to show the building to perspective buyers, Mary carefully steered them away from the birds’ room. The StoryQuest students still smile when they re-tell “the chicken story.” 

The stories and artifacts the students collected will not only be preserved for the future, but also will form the core of two public humanities programs: a traveling exhibition and a multi-media production that paints a picture of Washington College and Chestertown during World War II.  The Starr Center will coordinate the continued research and development of both these projects in the fall with new and returning students. And without a doubt, Sarah Graff will be back at the archives pursuing her dream to become an archivist. “StoryQuest was the guiding hand for me, my first year at WAC,” she says. “It showed me another side to history as well as a more finite career path. Without StoryQuest, I would have never had the excuse to walk into the archives in the first place.” 

Students interested in participating in the fall StoryQuest program should contact Michael Buckley by phone at (410) 810-7156, or by email at [email protected]. For more information, visit the C. V. Starr Center’s website: starrcenter.washcoll.edu

Founded in 1782 under the patronage of George Washington, Washington College is a private, independent college of liberal arts and sciences located in colonial Chestertown on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience is dedicated to fostering innovative approaches to the American past and present. Through educational programs, scholarship and public outreach, and a special focus on written history, the Starr Center seeks to bridge the divide between the academic world and the public at large.


Last modified on Aug. 18th, 2015 at 10:15am by Jean Wortman.