Genesis of WWI Student Essay Program
In 2010 Wendell Affield inherited his family’s history collection dating back 200 years. It consisted of hundreds of letters, photos, diaries, books, and other documents. Among the collection were a wedding photograph of his grandparents, taken in the bride’s home on December 10, 1917, and a register of wedding gifts given by guests.
In the picture, the bride and bridesmaids hold fresh bouquets, their expressions rather stoic. The groom and groomsmen are dressed in World War One army officer uniforms and appear quite somber.
Near the back of the gift list, Affield discovered one of the groomsmen’s names: Mr. Ira M. Dempsey, Johnstown, PA. He had gifted the newlyweds a silver bud vase. Below that entry is another, in parenthesis, added later (killed in action).
In 2013 Affield discovered that Ira M. Dempsey was twenty-six years old and died on 15 October 1918, twenty-seven days before the Armistice was signed. He was buried at Cambria, Pennsylvania, beside his parents. (Upon further research Affield learned that Dempsey had in fact died of pneumonia—a victim of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.)
In search of details about his grandfather’s friend, Affield reached out to Johnstown, PA, media and veterans organizations for more information about Ira M. Dempsey. He never received a response. Five years later, on the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, Affield says, “I’d like to think we, here in Minnesota, will make an effort to remember those men and women who served in the Great War. The young must keep history alive. They should know of the sacrifice made by their family and community members.”
The Student Essay Program idea began with conversations Affield had with Tim Lutz, Superintendent of Bemidji School District. Affield and Lutz are humbled by the wide-spread interest and support for the program.