When Henry Flesh speaks to school children in the Minneapolis area, he thrills them with tales of derring-do from his big adventure in World War II. Of the time he was shot down over Croatia and was kissed within 30 seconds of hitting the ground by a woman who, accompanied by three men, rescued him. How he hid in the woman's home while the Germans searched it, then escaped through the woods only to find his co-pilot hanging from a tree-snared parachute. How the two men fell in with local partisans fighting the Nazis and their fascist Croatian cohorts, hooked up with Russians who supplied the partisans with guns, and how the Russians eventually flew the Americans back to their home base.
For students, such first-hand accounts are a lot more fun than reading boring textbooks about the war. It makes that long-ago event seem real, and it gives them a greater appreciation of the sacrifices made by the dwindling number of veterans of that momentous conflict. And that's the whole point behind Remember Our Heroes, a nonprofit founded by Minneapolis-based certified financial planner licensee Jerry Wade.
Flesh is one of five World War II veterans-from an overall group of a dozen that includes Korean and Vietnam War participants-who are part of Wade's stable of former soldiers willing to share their experiences in area schools. "My challenge to teachers was to connect veterans to the classroom," says Wade, 45, president of Wade Financial Group, a fee-only firm with $128 million in assets under management.
What motivated Wade was the apparent lack of interest shown in commemorating Veterans Day and Memorial Day in the schools his three children attend. An avid military history buff, Wade goes to a couple of air shows a year in the Twin Cities, where he meets a number of World War II veterans. It's estimated that roughly 1,500 of these veterans die each day, meaning it won't be long before these living history pieces aren't around anymore. "All of these guys were standing around at booths in the heat, and I figured they should be telling their stories in schools," he says.
In the summer of 2001, Wade and his wife, Barbara, decided to start Remember Our Heroes as a way to make that happen. During air shows, Wade went around and shook veterans' hands, passed out his business card and asked if they'd like to participate as a speaker in the Wades' nascent endeavor. He says the hit rate was about 30%.
The hit rate was much worse when it came to selling his idea to history teachers in the suburban Wayzata school district attended by his children. The Wades' e-mails to teachers elicited zero response. The couple next took their case to the school board, where the response was similarly underwhelming.
Despite the patriotic surge in the weeks following 9/11, the Wades got nowhere fast. They then sent another round of e-mails to history teachers in the school district, this time with an attached newswire story describing how President Bush and former senator Bob Dole were imploring schools across the country to have vets in the classroom for Veterans Day. That finally made headway, the Wades got their feet in the door, and Remember Our Heroes has been on a roll ever since.
To date, participating veterans in the program have met with 3,000 students in six schools in the Twin Cities area, mostly in the Wayzata district. In-school presentations generally coincide with Veterans Day and Memorial Day, and are intensive, multi-session-per-day affairs overseen by either Wade, his wife or a volunteer facilitator trained by the Wades.
The sessions include a PowerPoint presentation with slides, along with two or three tables of photographs and mementos that provide background on the war being discussed and serve as a buildup for the featured speaker. "They do it in a very professional way that lends a very commanding presence to the presentation," says Nat Robbins, a sixth-grade history and math teacher in the Wayzata school district.
When it's time for somebody like Flesh to speak, the students have enough context to put his message into perspective. Instead of yawning or doodling in their notebooks, the students sit in rapt attention. "It's definitely an effective teaching tool because it makes the material real and alive for the kids," says Robbins.
The speaker's 15-minute presentation is followed by a Q & A session, where student questions to veterans run the gamut from whether they killed someone to how they feel about the Iraq War. After the one-hour session ends, students often gather around the veteran to shake hands and ask more questions. "A lot of them send me notes and letters afterward," says Flesh. "It's a very good feeling to do this."