New book about World War II memories grows out of class project

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Photo of World War II era airplanes.

Students conducted interviews locally and as far away as Canada for the project.

KALAMAZOO—A Western Michigan University gerontology class project that gathered people's memories of the World War II era has grown into a book that now is being sold online.

"There is No Substitute for Victory—Remembrances of World War II" is the result of a spring 2013 class project by students in Dr. Janet Hahn's class Issues in Aging: Service Learning. The handsomely arranged and illustrated spiral booklet is being sold for $20 and is packed with the reminiscences of nearly 200 area residents who lived through the war, many of whom were young at the time, but also a few veterans of the war effort.

The idea for the project came from two retired WMU faculty members, Dr. Barbara Rider, professor emerita and former chair of the Department of Occupational Therapy, and Dr. Ellen Page-Robin, founding director of the WMU Gerontology Program. The two professors had undertaken a similar project in the 1980s in which students compiled recipes from the Great Depression.

"They came to me in the fall of 2012 and said they had this idea of gathering the memories of people during World War II," Hahn says. "I was developing a service learning class and I thought maybe that would work as a class project. So we did it."

A team effort

The class first discussed World War II with help from a veteran class member with a passion for World War II history. Students developed a list of questions they wanted to ask.

Then the team of 22 students fanned out across the community, each conducting eight interviews. Students visited senior housing facilities in the area and interviewed retirees volunteering at the Kalamazoo Air Zoo. Some interviewees were recruited by word of mouth. Those interviewed stretched from Kalamazoo to the Detroit area and Canada.

"Many in the gerontology minor program carry a soft spot for older adults," says Jeana Brown, a student in the class, who now is a graduate assistant for the Center for Gerontology. "But they have never had the close, one-on-one experience with them."

Hahn acted as book editor. Even WMU President John M. Dunn lent his recollections of the era, recounting how maybe he took a little bit of his sister's fudge back when food was strictly rationed.

"Some of the interviews were written so well and were in such detail that we just put the whole thing in," Hahn says. "Others we just used bits and pieces and combined them into chapters in the book."

Book sections

Sections include Rationing, Communication, Our Troops, Family Life, Our Brave Men and Women, After the War, Patriotism, Rest in Peace, Stories Told from Men and Women Around the World and Recipes.

"The best thing was that students really loved the project," Hahn says. "They didn't love it at the beginning because it was scary for them to approach people, to set up interviews and get out there and conduct the interviews. But they really found it to be a great process to share and learn from the person they were interviewing. My impression was that it was also good for the people who were interviewed."

With today's social media-centered lifestyle, many students do not interact with their peers face to face, Brown adds. The project let students leave their cell phones and other devices in their pockets and learn in person.

"The World War II-era individuals are declining, and students may not get another opportunity to hear memories or stories first hand," Brown says. "The learning experience extended outside of a few questions answered for a school assignment. This really made students aware of the progression that has taken place in the United States and feel fortunate."

Where to buy

The book is available online by going to wmich.edu/disabilitycenter and clicking on Online Store and then Center for Gerontology Book.