ST. JOHN -- Framed letters hint at lost loves. Resolute faces gaze steadily from photographs. Medals wait to be united with grieving relatives. Thousands of war memorabilia reside, incredibly, in teacher Tom Clark’s Lake Central High School classroom. Here, matching the tangible evidence of war’s wounds with a mother, father, siblings, children, has been Clark’s mission since his rookie year of teaching history.
That was 1983, when a suicide bomber killed 241 American Marines in Lebanon. “I thought, ‘How can I get these kids to understand the impact of this?’” said Clark today.
The question led to his Gold Star program. Once a week, members of the Interact Club ignore the final bell and head instead for Clark’s classroom to plan food drives, charity events for Relay for Life and March of Dimes — and research Indiana’s fallen soldiers, from World War I through the Vietnam War.
Each student is assigned up to three solders’ stories to research, with the goals of returning personal items to families that still grieve and recognizing soldiers’ sacrifices with memorials. “That’s when history comes alive for my students,” said Clark.
Lake Central High School senior Christopher Rath, 17, from Crown Point, was in Interact Club for two years. “I felt like I was making a real difference. That was one of the most influential projects ever at school. (Because of it) I’m trying to get into the Naval Academy.”
Ariana Bulett, 17 and a junior, said, “It was an incredible thing to actually find the families.” She reached out to the brother of a soldier who died in Vietnam and received a response from Nebraska, with pictures and quotes his brother had sent home. “It was heartwarming. That was somebody’s life, and his brother wanted him to be remembered.
“Both my grandfathers were in World War II, and I want them to be remembered, too.”
Close to the action
Clark is an ex-Army man. After the 9/11 attacks, too old at age 51, he managed with the help of Major General Martin Umbarger to join the Indiana National Guard. From 2006 to 2007 he was stationed in Afghanistan, taking Operation Care items of clothing, food, pencils, book bags and more into villages where danger lurked. It is clear his bond with those affected by military service was strengthened even more.
Back home after another three-year stint with the Guard, Clark has continued to inspire students’ research. One woman’s son was supposed to come home, but because of paperwork was delayed two days; in those two days he was killed. One student went to France and found the grave of a soldier she’d been researching. Afterward she met with the man’s fiancée, now 82, and the two sat and pored over photos and memories. Wardell Smith’s daughter was 4 years old when he was killed in the line of duty. A student found her; she’d never had a picture of her father in uniform and hadn’t known he died saving four lives. Some take years to find. One family had contacted Clark because they heard about his Vietnam project on the news.
“In Indiana there were 1,621 who died in Vietnam; we’ve found 1,350 of the photographs and have returned (letters and other memorabilia) to the families,” said Clark, of Dyer. At Lake County Stoney Run Park, Clark and his students did the research for the World War II, Korean and Vietnam memorials.
‘An amazing impact’
Clark’s engaging personality and energy are well known throughout the school. Principal Robin Tobias, 37, and a former student at the sixth largest high school in the state, is effusive. “I’m not sure there are enough minutes in the day, in the week, for me to express my admiration for Mr. Clark as a teacher and an individual. He has had an amazing impact over so many lives over the years.
“It’s not unusual for teachers to be dedicated, but what he has done with the Interact Club has been unique -- a tremendous gift with the students to have them learn and to give back. They’re excited to be a part of this club.”
In August, the American Legion awarded Clark the National Education Award, the same honor given to two former presidents’ wives, Barbara Bush and Laura Bush.
“It was kind of a shocker,” said Clark, who typically downplays the importance of his role as liaison between past and present, between soldiers and their families. But, said Tobias, “He’s a strong leader with the students and staff.”
For his student, Bulett, she said, “It changed my outlook. Before, I thought of (casualties) as a number. Now I think of each one as a person.”
Victoria Morales, 19, of Crown Point is a 2013 graduate of Lake Central whose uncle was killed in World War II. “Mr. Clark is genuine about helping others. My biggest take-away from Interact Club is that one person can really make a difference in another’s life. You hear people say, ‘Oh, I’m just one person; what can I do?’”
Now she knows that one person can do wonders.