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Grand Valley brings WW2-era letters back to life in new storytelling project

Oct 23, 2017

One way to learn history is through textbooks and lectures. Another is through the words and handwriting of the people from our past. That’s right: letters, something today’s college students don’t see too much of.

Students at Grand Valley State University are getting a chance to experience the emotional and historical power of letters through a podcast called To the Letter.

“[Students are hearing] some letters from Grand Valley State University’s special collections and university archives,” said Leigh Rupinski, archivist for Public Services and Community Engagement at the university. On the podcast, a student actor reads the letter, and then Rupinski discusses the historical context with co-host Jacklyn Rander, the Library Publishing Services manager at Grand Valley State.

The university has a particularly large collection from Joseph Olexa, a Detroiter who wrote letters to his friend and partner Agnes Van Der Weide, of Grand Rapids, during World War II.

Olexa was in basic training when the two began to correspond, but the letters continue into his deployment to Europe. There he fought in the invasion of Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge, among other major events, said Rander.

The letters are valuable because “Joe was very, very positive in his letters,” said Rander. He’s really upbeat and so when you compare that to the kinds of service that he was involved in at the time, it makes for this very interesting perspective of the war and how soldiers felt about it and how they dealt with it when they talked to their loved ones.”

“I really hope that students are seeing the value of primary sources,” said Rupinski. “I also hope that they’re starting to appreciate that they can have interests outside of their areas of study.”

About 25 episodes have been planned to explore the letters between Olexa and Van Der Weide, and Grand Valley State’s Civil War collection may be the next to be tapped.

“There’s a lot to look forward to and a lot to cover,” said Rander.

To the Letter can be found online and on iTunes.

Listen above for the full conversation.

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