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Finding Heroes ‘Right in Our Own Hometown’


Veterans were the stars of the show when high school seniors gave a heartfelt salute and thank you by documenting the former service members’ words.

Students in English teacher Trevor Muir’s class interviewed and recorded the stories of eight World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War veterans, who now live at Railside Assisted Living Center in Byron Center. The six-minute documentaries premiered recently at Van Singel Fine Arts Center, sharing details of the vets’ lives from when they enlisted or were drafted to their personal experiences in war and life after service.

Students interviewed the veterans at their residence and created the documentaries, art and podcasts. They wrote the men’s and women’s biographies and assembled a book titled, “Honoring the Greatest Generation: Stories of Valor from Byron Center World War II, Korean & Vietnam War Veterans.” All work was on display in the Van Singel lobby.

Muir, for a unit on storytelling, wanted to connect his students to stories that would show them the power of preserving history through words. Muir’s grandfather, who died 10 years ago, was a World War II veteran.

“Nobody ever recorded his story, so when he passed away everyone was like, ‘Why did we never film or write it?'” Muir said. “Ever since I started teaching, it’s been a huge passion of mine to capture the stories of veterans.”

Veteran Mary Overby, who joined the military because she couldn’t afford college
Veteran Mary Overby, who joined the military because she couldn’t afford college

Connecting the Generations

Senior Leah Cook helped document the story of Josephine Velding, a World War II veteran born in 1921. “She was one of the first woman Marines,” Leah said. “She just did it because it was something new and something she wanted to try.”

That boldness is impressive, Leah added: “We tend to glorify the big heroes across the country, but there are so many right in our hometown. There are people I live right next door to who have been through so much but I don’t know their stories.”

Senior Trevor Skipper helped create a podcast on Franklin Smith, who served in World War II.

“Although he seemed willing to share the stuff that happened, he seemed scared,” Trevor said, wondering if Smith still feels the trauma of war.

Muir said he also wanted his students to see the impact they can have through writing, art and technology. “Now the kids see we can actually create stuff that matters,” he said. “We have heroes in Byron Center a mile and a half from school.”
Veterans said they were honored to be recognized by students.

“They did a good job,” said Ben Baird, who served in the Korean War. “It’s a good idea because we’ve got to get the kids more involved.”

Veteran Mary Overby said she was surprised to see herself on the big screen. “I thought it was wonderful,” she said. “I enjoyed everything.”

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GVSU Veterans History Project

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.

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