A Magazine from California State University, ChicoSpring 2017 Issue

Hidden Histories

Hidden Histories:

Uncovering the Unknown Soldier

“Received the telegram.”

Those three short words unexpectedly brought Carol Celic to tears, even though she already knew the story’s beginning, middle, and end. The graduate student had been researching the life of Lewis E. White for weeks already, but as she thumbed through his sister’s diaries and read the simple, pained entry of the death notification to the family on March 4, 1919, the budding historian was caught off guard by the emotion she felt.

“It was like reading a novel,” she said. “I’ll be honest—I cried at the end of the story. I felt so honored to be able to tell it.”

White was a US Army private first class who had been raised in Chico and went off to war, fighting with the Third Army of the Military Police Battalion. He served in England and France before finally landing in Koblenz, Germany, to support the Allied occupation. On February 3, 1919, he returned to his apartment in good spirits after a guard shift only to fall ill and die of bronchial pneumonia seven days later.

His life and legacy now play out in an 83-page biography Celic wrote as a part of her coursework for “Archival Research Seminar,” a Chico State history course taught by Professor Michael Magliari every fall for more than 20 years. The course is a requisite for Celic’s master’s degree in history and the University’s certificate in public history, a program Magliari built from the ground up. The certificate program, open to graduate and undergraduate students of all majors, makes Chico State one of the few public universities in California to offer professional career training in public history.

“The goal of the class is to train history majors to be historians … to do historical detective work,” Magliari said.

WWI Memorial

The World War I memorial at Children's Playground in Chico. (Jessica Bartlett/Student Photographer)

For the last two decades, Magliari has asked his students to tell the stories of Civil War soldiers, using the names of those buried in the All Union Soldiers Garden at the Chico Cemetery. But, with the centennial of the United States’ entry into World War I this year, he saw a new opportunity. An unobtrusive stone monolith at Children’s Playground just a block from campus has a simple plaque with the names of 29 local soldiers—all of whom died during their World War I service.

Students drew names out of a hat and set off in their research pursuits, logging hundreds of hours scouring unpublished government documents, deeds and mortgages, and ancestry unavailable online. Some were lucky enough to find family histories, but others relied on public records to paint portraits of their young soldiers.

“I tell the students, if you are doing this course correctly, in three weeks, you will be a leading authority on this person,” Magliari said. It’s up to the students to pull at the threads they find along the way, unraveling details about the soldiers’ lives and spinning more comprehensive stories that rescue them from obscurity.

“It can either be really fun or really heartbreaking,” he said. “There is so much potential. The good ones are really fun to read, like a page-turner.”

Celic’s research treasure trove came from an unexpected source: a simple Google search.

Typing in White’s name and dates of birth and death, she found a historical archive at Stanford University, where photos, letters, and other items had been preserved. That uncovered the name of Wendy Hamma Nipper, who lives in Modesto and is White’s great-niece and the archive’s donor.

Celic tracked down a phone number and called her, only to learn Nipper was presently going through White’s sister’s diaries—there were more than 70, with a few lines of notes from every day of her life. She invited Celic to visit and go through her boxes of family history.

Celic spent hours exploring the contents, unfolding letters, admiring photographs, and jotting down notes from the diaries, including the wrenching note when the family was alerted to the soldier’s death. The letters, brown and brittle with age, and the small gold-embossed journals tell a story more detailed than Celic could ever have imagined.

They are further enhanced by a collection of family photos, many of which Nipper gifted to her. A smile spreads across Celic's face as she shares a portrait of White stiffly in uniform with his maternal grandmother, another of him standing with his mother and his pet parrot, and yet another of him seated on a porch in France.

With all of Nipper’s materials, Celic was able to more accurately pursue government records, census data, and other historical details.

Celic estimates she easily spent 200 hours researching and going through White’s family’s personal effects. She thinks of him often, as she passes the plaque with his name as she drives to campus, and she brought him flowers at the Chico Cemetery on his birthday. Even as she starts work on her master’s thesis she knows maybe she’s not done telling White’s story, she said.

“Every time I read his letters, it draws me back,” she said. “I call him ‘my solider.’”

Jeanette Adame (BA, History, ’16) admits resisting a connection to their assignments was a challenge. The graduate student’s saving grace was that despite all her sleuthing, she could never find any written family records or a picture of her soldier, even though he attended Chico Normal School.

Photo of grad student Carol Celic

Graduate student Carol Celic sorts through photos, letters, and artifacts from a WWI soldier's personal items.

(Jason Halley/University Photographer)

Lee Shaw was a 25-year-old farmer and engaged citizen when he was drafted and sent to Fort Lewis and then overseas in 1918, leaving his life and family behind in the Bidwell Rancho. With the 362nd Infantry on September 29, 1918, he was part of the charge that broke the German front at Gesnes, and was killed instantly by machine gun fire, his captain wrote to his family.

As Shaw’s family waited for his remains to be returned, representatives of the French government traveled to Chico to honor the city’s war heroes with an international event held at Chico Normal School. Nearly a year after his death, a processional from downtown to the cemetery for Shaw’s funeral in Chico was attended by more than 500 people.

“It was really rewarding to take just one person and tell their life story,” Adame said. “As a historian, you don’t get to do this that often. We have all these layers and subparts to our own lives, and these people are the same way.”

Yet, she could not help but wonder what Shaw’s life and his family’s dreams of an agrarian empire would have been like had he stayed in Chico, lived, and died here.

“Who knows, maybe we would have had another John Bidwell or another Diamond Match Factory?” she said.

Michael Muraki was filled with the same curiosity about his soldier, Nelson R. Goe. An “everyday hero,” he became a teacher not long after graduating from Chico Normal School and taught woodworking, metal fabrication, and other industrial arts.

Muraki, who is also a graduate student in history, learned to push through the monotonous work of keyword searches and trolling screens of microfilm in pursuit of the proverbial needle in the haystack. He found it in the form of two Marin County newspaper articles.

With those, he learned Nelson was an integral part of the Marin County community, teaching at three separate schools and using his musical talents to play the horn in a school orchestra and mentor a band formed by children in an orphanage—which made the fact he was a bugler in the war all the more logical.

Unlike many others of his day, Goe volunteered for his service before the opportunity for the draft. His manual skills made him a great candidate for training soldiers at Mather Field, where he was part of a nonflying unit. Though it seemed like a harmless post, a mere five months after enlisting, he died November 18, 1918, killed by the greatest global villain of the time, not war combat but the Spanish Flu.

“The experiences they went through are unimaginable. It’s so much suffering and pain. And there are so many people dying this same way on the very same day. It’s amazing to think how many stories are untold, and those we can tell add to the understanding of the experiences of these guys.” Muraki said. “Other than this, he is just a name on a plaque.”

Historians must push beyond the basic facts, he said, because in all that monotony, nuggets are sure to emerge, and when they do, they give value not just to the project but to society.

“A lot of times in history, we are looking for a theme to create arguments and understanding,” he said. “It can be easy when looking at the numbers to forget there is a story like this behind every single soldier.”


—Ashley Gebb (BA, Journalism, ’08) is the publications editor at Chico State.

 
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Alum Notes

CRISTINA RAMIREZ

CRISTINA RAMIREZ

('08) was promoted to assistant superintendent of Calcrete Construction.

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JOEY KOCHLACS

JOEY KOCHLACS

(’12) runs his own sustainable furniture business.

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BOB GEISER

BOB GEISER

('88) received a distinguished service award from the Boy Scouts.

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