Students learn from living history

Jeanette Kendall

History lessons will come to life for East Peoria’s eighth graders during the week of Veterans Day.

A community Veterans’ Recognition Program for East Peoria, Washington and Morton eighth graders and invited community veterans in those towns is planned Nov. 9, 10 and 12.

The East Peoria event takes place at 9 a.m. Nov. 9 at the Par-A-Dice Hotel ballroom.

The Washington event takes place at 9 a.m. Nov. 10 at Five Points and the Morton event at 9 a.m.

Nov. 12 at Morton Junior High School.

Steve Saal, Tazewell County Veterans Assistance Commission superintendent; Rob Houchin, Tazewell County Regional Superintendent of Schools; and John Ackerman, Tazewell County Board member are organizing the event.

Ackerman said he recently heard about school officials being able to decide whether there will be no school on Veterans Day.

Ackerman said about three-quarters of schools in Tazewell County will not take Veterans Day off this year.

“They have to have some sort of class about what Veterans Day is all about,” he said.

When Ackerman heard about some Chicago schools bringing veterans in to talk to classes, an idea began forming in his mind.

“I thought, ‘What a great idea.’ What better way for them to learn than to bring the veterans in themselves,” he said.

Locally, Ackerman said there are too many students to do that in one school in Tazewell County, so he, Saal and Houchin decided to have three separate veterans events.

Initially, the trio talked to Washington school officials.

“They actually sat down with us and drew up a program we are going to be instituting. Then, we talked with East Peoria and Morton and got all their schools on, also,” Ackerman said.

Eighth-grade teachers will give their students letters to take home explaining the event and inviting any veterans they may know.

Any veteran or current military member is invited to attend the event. To register, they may call Saal at 477-2271. Registrants will be asked to provide a name, branch of service and conflict. The information will be used during the program.

The event features the National Guard, speeches from the towns’ mayors, Saal and Dr. Norm Standish, the keynote speaker.

Standish was a civilian working for the military during World War II, a veteran of the Korean War and is a direct descendant of Miles Standish, who was the military official on the Mayflower. He was also a code breaker and designed a top-secret code the military used.

“He got a letter from J. Edgar Hoover thanking him,” Ackerman said.

There will also be a brief presentation on veteran facts. Some of these will include stories about Fort Campbell, a German prisoner of war camp in Washington and how German POWs worked on the pumpkin farms in Morton.

 “They were brought here to work farms while farmers were away,” Ackerman said. “It’s a little-known fact, and our hope is by mentioning it, that it will bring it home for the students.”

Another tidbit will focus on the submarine bodies that were built in Chicago and floated down the Illinois River through East Peoria to New Orleans, where they were finished.

Veterans will also be recognized at the event.

“I think it’s important that our students understand what Veterans Day is. I think it’s important that our students see, hear and learn what these veterans did for our country,” Ackerman said.

The ultimate goal of the event is to create a domino effect in which neighbors and youth will recognize those who served or are serving the country, Ackerman added.

Each event is expected to have about 500 people in attendance.

Ackerman said the event may continue next year.

“We’re getting some very positive feedback on it. We’re hoping to enlarge it to a couple more communities. We wanted to make sure the program is of good quality. We didn’t want to take on too much the first year,” he said.

Ackerman said the collaboration has been a team effort.

“It’s a group working together. They’ve been very supportive,” Ackerman said, adding that the schools have been very helpful, too.

Saal, 57, said he was brought on board due to his association with veterans.

As commander of American Legion Post 44 in Pekin and commandant of the Marine Corp League in Pekin, Saal said he has noticed a trend within these organizations — falling membership.

“I think by approaching these kids and talking to them about World War II and different conflicts. We can tell them about traditions ... Veterans Day, what it’s for.”

Saal, who organizes Memorial Day and Veterans Day events in Pekin, said interest is waning.

“There is a lack of participation from younger kids. It’s all old-timers, and, of course, they’re leaving us. I don’t know what’s going to happen 10 years from now,” Saal said. “We need to keep the tradition going. Hopefully, these kids in eighth grade, four years from now, they are going to have a choice to make, go to college or manufacturing, which there is a lack of, or go into the service.”

Saal’s father was in World War II, and his grandfather served in World War I. Saal’s father told him to keep the veterans’ clubs going.

“I think they are an institute. The numbers are dwindling. You see it in other organizations like the Masonic Lodge and the Knights of Columbus, the Moose,” Saal said. “In this society now, the younger generations, they are not going to belong to these clubs. It’s a different era.”

“I just think it’s a great honor to serve your country,” he added.

And, those who have served will be honored at the community events.

All veterans and current military personnel are welcome to attend with or without a student invitation, and students can invite as many guests as they wish. Guests should call in to register prior to the event.

To register, call Steve Saal at 477-2271, or e-mail tazvet@mtco.com.