The mysterious briefcase of Martin Joyce  SEP 12 2013

Kevin Delaney, the head of Wayland High School's history department, gave his 11th grade students an interesting challenge: find out everything you can about the person who owned a dusty briefcase full of papers that Delaney had found in the storage room. The man, Martin Joyce, turned out to have a life that spanned many significant events in history and his story provided the students with a personal lens into history.

Inside were the assorted papers -- letters, military records, photos -- left behind by a man named Martin W. Joyce, a long-since deceased West Roxbury resident who began his military career as an infantryman in World War I and ended it as commanding officer of the liberated Dachau concentration camp. Delaney could have contacted a university or a librarian and handed the trove of primary sources over to a researcher skilled in sorting through this kind of thing. Instead, he applied for a grant, and asked an archivist to come teach his students how to handle fragile historical materials. Then, for the next two years, he and his 11th grade American history students read through the documents, organized and uploaded them to the web, and wrote the biography of a man whom history nearly forgot, but who nonetheless witnessed a great deal of it.

"Joyce became the thread that went through our general studies," Delaney says. "When we were studying World War I, we did the traditional World War I lessons and readings. And then stopped the clocks and thought, 'What's going on with Joyce in this period?'"

As the class repeatedly asked and answered that question, they slowly uncovered the life of a man who not only oversaw the liberated Dachau but also found himself a participant in an uncommon number of consequential events throughout Massachusetts and U.S. history. In a way Delaney couldn't have imagined when he first popped open the suitcase that day, Joyce would turn out to be something akin to Boston's own Forrest Gump -- a perfect set of eyes through which to visit America's past.

Fantastic, what a great story. My favorite tidbit is that after all the wars and stuff, he and his wife were on the Andrea Doria when it was struck by the Stockholm and sunk. Part of the students' project was building a web site pertaining to Joyce's life and includes scans of all the papers they discovered...it's well worth looking through. (via @SlateVault)

Read more posts on kottke.org about:
Andrea Doria   Kevin Delaney   Martin Joyce   war   World War I   World War II

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