"A letter from you is so welcome. You have the gift of expressing in words that make things feel so near that you could reach out and touch them. It seems as though your letters come at the right time to brighten the day up for me, to give me another smile, or to bring out some hidden thought that makes me think there is something worth fighting for. "
— Cpl. Anthony Noon during World War II
AMESBURY — Former Amesbury High School English teacher Roland Woodwell taught hundreds of students from 1923 to 1966, wrote an acclaimed biography of John Greenleaf Whittier, penned numerous articles as a Harvard-educated scholar, and enjoyed boxing in his spare time.
But perhaps Woodwell is remembered best by locals as being a true friend to more than 80 of his former students who became soldiers during and after World War II, and with whom Woodwell maintained extensive correspondence.
"He knew how important it was to keep these men's morale up — nothing says 'I care' more than a letter," AHS English department Chairwoman Patty Hoyt said.
Decades later, a suitcase full of letters these soldiers had written to "Mr. Woodwell" has been given to AHS, where students have begun the process of identifying these men and tracking them down to honor them — and Woodwell.
At a reception and assembly on Nov. 17, at 10 a.m. in the AHS Lawlor Auditorium, some of the men and their families will be introduced, students will read excerpts of letters, and Russ Munroe will present a slide show featuring yearbook and war photographs of the letter writers, as the school begins to unveil its "Dear Mr. Woodwell" local history project.
The project and its assembly to honor alumni veterans also provides AHS a special opportunity to continue to honor the memory of AHS alumni Jordan Shay, who died in Iraq in September.
The school will also honor the memory of a man who served in another important way: making a difference in these soldiers' lives.
While the letters reveal some of the soldiers' experiences in Europe and in the Pacific, most of them simply talk about home, joke about the gym Woodwell had set up in his barn and share their memories of Woodwell's extensive grammar lessons, Hoyt said.
One man asked for a copy of a book he had read in Woodwell's class, because he couldn't stop thinking about it. They asked his advice and thanked him for writing to them.
"It's inspirational to know that these young men had such respect for him and that he kept that connection with students even after they left his classroom," Hoyt said. "It shows that one person can truly touch many lives."
The school received the letters from retired teacher Ralph Noon, whose father, Anthony Noon, one of the letter writers, helped care for Woodwell until his death. When his father passed, Noon found the suitcase and brought the letters to Hoyt, who has enlisted her classes, as well as the American Studies classes of Paul Jancewicz.
In addition to collecting information on the letter writers, including finding yearbook photos and current addresses, students have been studying the content of the letters, learning about the actual soldiers' lives, rather than memorizing names and dates from a textbook.
"Even looking at their yearbooks, it lists all the different clubs and activities they were a part of, and you can connect that to students today," project coordinator Steve Hanshaw said. "Mr. Jancewicz has said 'history is mostly perspective,' and it's nice to be able to read firsthand perspectives."
The classes received an Amesbury Education Foundation Inc. grant, which allows the students to purchase postage to correspond with the letter writers and send them invitations to the reception and assembly.
"It's been a very slow, tedious process, and we have a long way to go," Hoyt said. "We hope to generate interest in the project and find more of the letter writers."
The grant also allows the school to photocopy the letters to use in future junior American Studies classes. Hoyt said she hopes to eventually put the photographs and stories together into a documentary to promote oral history.
"Students can look at these letters as real, primary history documents," Hoyt said. "This is what true historical research is — a real day-by-day, paper-by-paper detailed analysis."
Though the assembly is nearly a week after the Veterans Day holiday, Hoyt hopes it will remind people that any day is an important day to remember veterans, as exemplified by Woodwell, who took time to answer each of the hundreds of letters from the 80 men.
Any AHS veteran of the World War II era is invited to contact Hoyt at 978-388-4800, ext. 2340, Jancewicz, or veterans agent Kristen Larue, if they are interested in attending, or in sharing their memories with students.