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Tracing the steps of a fallen SD hero

Chamberlain High School. (Republic file photo)

CHAMBERLAIN—One hundred years after the end of World War I, the history of that era in American history lives on. And a Chamberlain High School social studies teacher is learning as much as she can about it.

In June, Carissa VanderLey will be traveling to Europe to trace the footsteps of Major George E. Sperbeck, a South Dakota school superintendent from Turner County who was killed in October 1918 during World War I in France.

Eighteen educators from across the nation, including VanderLey, were selected from hundreds of applicants to participate in Memorializing The Fallen, a professional teacher development program, that will take them on a journey to rediscover the history of the First World War. The program is sponsored by National History Day, a nonprofit educational organization that promotes the teaching and learning of history hands on, while tracing the steps of fallen heroes in France.

VanderLey has a dual master's degree in technology in education and training, and education with a history emphasis from University of South Dakota and Dakota Wesleyan University. She has been teaching social studies and history in the Chamberlain School District since 2000. She learned about the program on social media last fall.

"I was not going to apply at first," VanderLey said. "Then I visited with my husband, who convinced me that it would be a great opportunity. The night it was due, I went to school, locked myself in the classroom and started writing."

To be considered, VanderLey had to write a two-page essay describing her philosophy of teaching and why she thought she would be a good candidate for the program.

In December, VanderLey received the call from the National History Day organization informing her that she had been chosen to participate in the program. The trip will take her to multiple historic sites and the delegation will also visit the Louvre Museum in Paris, which is close to where the Allied powers signed a ceasefire agreement with Germany on November 11, 1918, which ended World War I. That day was known as Armistice Day, and led to the creation of Veterans Day in the United States, celebrated on Nov. 11 annually.

The teachers will work over the two-week course of the program to create multi-disciplinary lesson plans to help teachers and students learn about the legacies of World War I. Each teacher will research the life of a silent hero, visit grave sites and deliver a eulogy of that person.

"The NHD wanted us to pick a hero from the area we are from. I grew up in Turner County," VanderLey said. "I had two cemeteries to choose from and decided my silent hero is Major George E. Sperbeck from the 147th Artillery. He is buried in Marion, South Dakota."

Sperbeck was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on Nov. 30, 1887; and had, worked as a school principal in Fort Pierre before moving to Parker.

In 1916, he resigned as the superintendent of the Parker school and went to the Mexican border as a first lieutenant in the Army. In 1917, Sperbeck was promoted to battery adjutant and went to France, where he soon rose to captain.

"To read and learn about men like him, puts things into perspective," VanderLey said. "You get involved with your fallen hero's life. It almost feels like you know them. They had families and jobs and yet put everything on hold to fight for our freedom and for democracy."

VanderLey also found an article describing the ultimate sacrifice Sperbeck made for his country. One of his comrades, writing from the trenches of the Battle of Meuse-Argonne — the final Allied offensive of World War I that stretched along the entire Western Front — reported that a German shot Sperbeck, the bullet entering his body near the heart. Sperbeck was taken to a hospital and died two days later, on Oct. 11, 1918.

In preparation for her trip to France, VanderLey will study five history books and attend monthly webinars hosted from George Mason University, while she also works on incorporating her findings on Sperbeck and World War I history into her classrooms.

She hopes to spark in her students a lifelong interest in history and plans to teach them research skills, so they can trace soldiers from their own hometowns and their stories.

"Students need to know why we should be concerned about what happens in Europe," VanderLey said. "In the 1900s, there was a feeling of, 'Why should we go over there and fight?' We need to be able to teach our students to be worldly and understand what motivated these people who fought in foreign wars, and fought for democracy."

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