Seventh-graders Lauren Heier and Amelia Vogt were tasked with a mission: Build a visual display highlighting the career of U.S. Navy veteran Kim Mitchell, who grew up in Solon Springs.
Their junior curator exhibit, unveiled Friday, Aug. 13, at the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center, earned applause from the audience and praise from the veteran, who joined the event via Zoom from San Diego, California.
“The way you captured my story, and my career is just — it’s beautifully done and you have much to be proud of,” Mitchell told the students. “I’m proud to have been able to be part of this project with you, and thank you for highlighting my story.”
Vogt and Heier, both 12, spent a week working at the museum. They conducted practice interviews and whittled down their list of questions for a one-hour interview with Mitchell. Then, they had four hours to create the display.
“I think they had a hard time condensing it all into a board,” said John Gidley, the center's education director.
The junior curators, who attend Superior Middle School, ran out of time before they had finished their list of questions. They also worked on the project right down to the last minute.
“They were on a mission. They did a great job,” Gidley said.
The students said they enjoyed the program.
“It’s fun to learn how to interview people and to learn about someone that’s important,” Heier said.
“I think it’s really cool for us to get a chance to learn about history,” Vogt said.
The fact that Mitchell worked in the Pentagon and had her portrait painted by former President George W. Bush were the most interesting facts they discovered about their subject. One piece of information they wanted to put in, but couldn’t, revolved around Mitchell boarding the USS Stump, the destroyer she was initially assigned to.
“She could have gone on April 1, but she purposely went on April 2 to avoid going on the ship on April Fool’s Day,” Heier said.
Mitchell’s story has been featured in magazines, newspapers, books and television programs. Her painting and story are part of the current “Out of Many, One” exhibit at the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Texas. In June she was named to the Solon Springs Educational Foundation’s Wall of Honor.
“(It's a) pretty amazing story and this is kind of the best part of the whole program, really, is that kids get to connect and see that people from our neck of the woods can have an influence on world events,” Gidley said.
The process can leave a lasting impression. Aidan Rusk, a senior at Superior High School, volunteered to be a junior curator during the program’s inaugural year. He created a display on Superior Middle School Principal David Jensen.
“I had no idea he was in the service, so it was nice to know about it,” Rusk said.
He was nervous about the program, but enjoyed learning “hidden facts” about Jensen’s service and highlighting them. Interviewing Jensen also helped Rusk learn how to talk to people more effectively.
The next year, he became a junior tour guide at the museum.
“I just love interacting with people in our community, and the fact that we can tell veterans' stories is pretty fun,” Rusk said.
That’s what the junior curator program is all about, Gidley said.
“It’s to, you know, bring ownership of this place to the kids in the community, and then make it more accessible to them,” he said.
Veterans in the spotlight
A number of completed exhibits are already on display. Students Olivia Wolbert and Lili Sakuray delved into the life of Atticus Larson, who grew up in Superior and served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1990-1994.
“His squadmate wrote a book about their platoon in Saudi Arabia, which later became a movie called ‘Jarhead,’” according to the exhibit. “From what Atticus said, the movie was a little exaggerated.”
Superior Mayor Jim Paine, a U.S. Marine veteran, was the focus of young researchers Keith Turner and David Aleshire.
Students Piper Carswell and Teagan Nifoussis chronicled the highlights of Keith Silbernick’s 30-year career with the Army National Guard. He served much of that time at Camp Ripley, and was deployed to Kuwait in 2011 for a year supporting the United States’ withdrawal from Iraq.
“He recalls working with the MRAV (Multi-Role Armoured Vehicle) and other vehicles when they were damaged from IED explosives,” according to the exhibit.
Randall Freeman enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1983 at the age of 19. The Superior man worked on M60 and M1 Abrams tanks in Germany.
“Freeman loved working on tanks so much that even in his free time he would study the tanks,” according to the exhibit, created by junior curators Jayla and Jade Ludwig.
Students Raven and Damon Pagsisihan interviewed Lee Freeman, who served in the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, for their exhibit. After basic training in New York, he went to Washington, D.C. for advanced training, where he learned “how to arrest people and be a detective.”
The junior curator exhibits will remain on display at the center for a year.