History teacher’s lesson puts focus on local soldiers
August 23, 2013 1:28PM
Tom Clark in his classroom at Lake Central High School. | Post-Tribune photo
Updated: September 26, 2013 6:26AM
“The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive the veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation.”
— President George Washington
When you walk into history teacher Tom Clark’s classroom at Lake Central High School you could easily mistake it for a museum or some kind of war room.
Historic posters or enlarged photographs of young John Kennedy Jr. saluting his father’s casket, civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. delivering one of his powerful speeches, Civil War veterans and Vladimir Lenin are just a few that grace the walls. There also are antisemitic Nazi propaganda books such as “Sweet Jew” and American propaganda posters like the one of Uncle Sam slapping an extremely slant-eyed, buck-toothed “Jap.” Cannon balls, bazookas, bombs and a Russian helmet riddled with bullets holes are on display.
And there are letters. Hundreds of letters written by Indiana’s war dead.
For 28 years, Clark, 58, has had his students go through files of American G.I.’s from the Hoosier State who have been killed in combat. If possible, the families of these fallen soldiers are contacted for more information. Oftentimes, said families donate the medals and uniforms of their deceased loved ones. They are grateful someone still cares.
Not only local newspapers, but also the Wall Street Journal and CBS News have done stories on what Clark and his students do every year.
Clark lives in Dyer with his wife, Marsha. They have raised two daughters, both of whom are Lake Central graduates and have taken their father’s history classes.
“I was born in Gary,” Clark began. “I graduated from Wirt High School in Miller. While I was in high school, I was really shocked there was so much anti-war sentiment going on. I thought we should be over there (Vietnam). That’s the way I was brought up; my father was a World War II veteran. You know, ‘kill a commie for mommie.’ The anti-red kind of stuff.”
The Vietnam War was pretty much over the year you graduated from Wirt.
“Correct. Six months after I married my high school sweetheart, I joined the army without telling her. It was December of ‘75.”
Where did you end up?
“Germany. I was in the army from ‘76 to ‘79. I made sergeant really quick and served as a military policeman. When I got out, I started school thanks to the G.I. Bill. That’s the reason I joined the army in the first place. I knew that I would eventually go to college. I did a four-year degree in three years.”
Where did you go to school?
“Purdue University Calumet — a bachelor’s in social studies. I got a master’s degree from Indiana University Northwest in education. They didn’t offer a master’s degree in history, but they loaded me with history classes.”
Students researching fallen soldiers from Indiana?
“The Beirut thing in ‘83 was our first experience.”
You refer to all those Marines killed by a suicide bomber at a base in Lebanon.
“Yes. My students couldn’t make the connection that 240 Marines lost their lives. I thought about how I could help them identify with that. Most kids don’t watch the news.”
What did you do?
“I had them write letters to the survivors. Lo and behold, letters started coming back. My students and those Marines — most of whom had previously invaded Grenada — became pen pals. I thought, ‘What a great way to teach.’”
Tell me more.
“After the Estes boy and the Thorstad boy were killed in that bombing in Beirut, their respective families offered me some their sons’ belongings.
“It was quite an experience picking up those items. It was like two different worlds. Here was Danny Estes who had lived in a tiny house in Black Oak, and young Tom Thorstad who had grown up in a great big house in Chesterton.”
War doesn’t discriminate.
“About that time, I had a student named Doug DeVries ask me if anyone from Lake Central was killed in Vietnam. After doing some research, we discovered there were five former Lake Central students killed in Vietnam. We had a plaque made from a leftover piece of stone from the Vietnam Memorial. Here it is.”
Tom, I’m going to attempt to read this into my tape recorder. Bear with me; my voice will probably crack a time or two: “Michael P. Biedron. Richard A. Ellsworth. Daryl R. Grothaus. Robert L. Reiplinger. William D. Trent. In honor of those who paid the supreme sacrifice in combat during the Vietnam Conflict, 1959-1975.”
“The Trent boy got the Navy Cross. He saved 40 lives. DeVries got the five families here at the school and we had a ceremony. He got up and presented each family with a plaque and then this larger plaque was unveiled.”
What year did the ceremony take place?
“I believe it was in ‘85.”
How many soldiers from Lake County were killed in Vietnam?
“More than 260. We’ve found 249 of the families.”
Lake County casualties during World War II?
“More than 880. Gary alone lost something like 100 in World War I.”
My dad fought in Korea. Any statistics on that?
“I’d have to look that one up. They call it the ‘Forgotten War.’ I do know there were almost as many G.I.’s killed in Korea as Vietnam — in half the time.”
As the years progress, your students have expanded their research to all 92 counties in Indiana.
“Yes, there were more than 30 soldiers from Porter County killed in Nam; three from Newton County.”
One of them was Roger Kros from my hometown of about 800 people. There was a book at the Lake Village Memorial Library dedicated in Roger’s honor. I remember staring at his name on the inside of the book’s cover. It made an impression. I was about 12 at the time.
“History is real. It’s not just numbers or names on a wall. These were young men and women who died for their country. They hailed from small towns and inner cities throughout this state.”
Besides your three-plus years in the U.S. Army, you also served in the National Guard.
“Correct. While teaching here at Lake Central, I joined the guard in ‘05 at the age of 51. I was sent to Afghanistan. One of my daughters also joined the guard and became a combat medic. She was in Iraq twice.”
You were in Afghanistan as late as 2007. Have things changed over there since then?
“Yes, it’s more dangerous now. A lot of these insurgents aren’t Afghans, they’re foreign fighters who want to kill Americans. When I was there, there were about 25,000 of us. Then it went up to about 100,000. Now, we’re down to about 70,000. Believe me, when we supposedly pull out next summer, we’ll still have nine bases there.”
Lake Central grads killed in Afghanistan?
“Staff Sgt. David Novaczyk and Spc. Sergio Perez.
In the past, there have been a few folks accuse Tom Clark of being a war monger or saber rattler. I don’t agree with that. I think he brings awareness. War is hell. Mr. Clark has incorporated a unique method of teaching that really gets his students involved.
The aforementioned Doug DeVries went on to become a principal, but not before he became a social studies teacher.