The first exhibit inside the new Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes is for Irena Sendler, who rescued 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw ghetto.
Nearby is one for Therese Frare, a gay rights activist and photojournalism student whose iconic 1990 Life magazine photo of a dying patient changed the face of the AIDS epidemic.
Another exhibit in the museum that opened Tuesday on a brick-paved street in this historic Kansas town features Gene Shoemaker, the founder of astrogeology and the only person whose ashes are buried on the moon.
Then there’s Ann Williams Wedaman of Overland Park. She’s a former teacher and stay-at-home mom. Ask why she’s in this hallowed hall and she fans out both hands. Baffled.
“I was nice to someone,” she said. “It’s kind of sad you get put in a museum for being nice to someone. It’s how I was raised.”
A little context: It was autumn 1957, Little Rock, Ark. She was 16 then, a junior at Central High School, where nine black students had enrolled, one of the country’s first integrations since Brown vs. Board of Education had ended “separate but equal” three years earlier.
Those black students, the so-called Little Rock Nine, walked through a mob’s slurs and spit. Segregationists brought guns to town. President Eisenhower sent troops.
When Ann walked into her speech class, there sat Elizabeth Eckford, alone, scared, eyes locked straight ahead.
What happened next is exactly what the Milken Center for Unsung Heroes is all about.
Funded by philanthropist Lowell Milken of Los Angeles, the center features research projects by high school and elementary students to discover extraordinary deeds by people largely missed or ignored by history.
Kids across the country dig through old books and newspapers to find the stories of the unsung.
Two high school girls from Topeka tracked down Tran Ngoc “Harry” Hue, a South Vietnamese lieutenant colonel credited with saving the lives of countless American soldiers. Hue appeared at Tuesday’s grand opening along with his family.
A fourth-grade class from Los Angeles found the story of Ralph Lazo, a Mexican-American teenager who volunteered to live in a Japanese internment camp during World War II to protest discrimination.
And students from Prince George High School in Virginia told how Elizabeth Eckford and Little Rock reached all the way to Wedaman in Overland Park.
Ann took a desk next to Elizabeth that day in 1957. She doesn’t remember what she said, only that after a while Elizabeth turned and they talked. They became friends.
Years later, Elizabeth named Ann Wedaman and Ken Reinhardt as the two white students who were kind to her and made that year tolerable. The class they shared, Eckford told the students, was her safe haven.
Ann lost friends back then for taking a stance — being kind to the black students. Ken got punched for the same thing. In Little Rock, they were N-word lovers.
“They took a stand for what is right,” said Norm Conard, the new center’s executive director. “That wasn’t easy for someone 16 and 17 years old in Little Rock in 1957.
“They showed the power of one person to change the world. That’s what this place is about.”
It started with Sendler
The new museum’s roots go back to the early 1990s, when Lowell Milken presented Conard, then a teacher at Uniontown (Kan.) High School, the Milken Educator Award for outstanding history projects using performing arts and video production.
One project was about Sendler, the young Catholic social worker who saved the Warsaw children.
She gave them false names and hid them in non-Jewish homes. She wrote their real names on paper and buried them in jars beneath an apple tree. “What guarantee is there our child will live?” parents asked. “None,” Sendler answered. “I don’t know if I will get out of the ghetto alive today.”
Uniontown students wrote a play called “Life in a Jar,” which has been performed throughout the U.S. and Europe. The new light led to a Nobel Peace Prize nomination for Sendler, who died in 2008.
Those Kansas kids told her story. In a way, they did for Irena Sendler what Steven Spielberg did for Oskar Schindler.
Some visited her in Poland. According to a quote in the Fort Scott museum, Sendler told the students: “You have changed Poland; you have changed the United States; you have changed the world.”
“Life in a Jar” led to Milken and Conard planning the Lowell Milken Center. Since its start in 2007, the center has reached more than 1.1 million students at 8,000 schools in all 50 states, and it has hosted visitors from 68 countries.
The center, which operates in an old brick building across the street from the new museum, offers summer fellowships to teachers to explore new ideas for unsung-hero projects.
“These are the stories the history books haven’t written about,” Milken said. “We hope to tell the world of them. Young people need to be engaged in values of courage, conviction, vision, perseverance and compassion.
“And in their own lives, when they are asked to step forward and do the right thing, they will have a sense of experience and reference for doing so.”
Who knows? Maybe the museum’s story of Sergeant Stubby will inspire. He was a stray dog who during World War I warned soldiers of mustard gas attacks.
Heroes come to town
Main Street was blocked off Monday and Tuesday in Fort Scott, about a hundred miles south of Kansas City.
A big tent stood in the middle of the brick-paved street in front of the new museum. On Monday, a crowd gathered a couple of blocks away inside the old Liberty Theatre.
The unsung had come to town tell their stories.
In introducing Harry Hue, Susan Sittenauer, a history teacher at Seaman High School in Topeka, spoke about the project to tell the story of the former South Vietnamese army officer.
First, she talked about the challenge of the “unsung.”
“It’s really difficult for obvious reasons,” Sittenauer said, referring to the lack of research material.
A single newspaper article put two of Sittenauer’s students on to Hue. They didn’t know much about the Vietnam War. But they learned. They found American officers who remembered him.
One day they called Hue at his home in Virginia.
“I’m sure he thought, ‘Who are these two high school girls from Kansas?’ ” Sittenauer said.
Hailey Reed, one of the students, said they were nervous showing the documentary film at the National History Day Contest in Washington, D.C., particularly knowing that Hue would attend.
“He told us it touched his heart,” Reed said.
Hue had been shot and captured during the war. His Hanoi captors offered to release him if he would turn against the American military, but he refused and spent 13 years in captivity. He told the Fort Scott gathering that he was humbled and honored.
“I did my best to protect my country,” he said.
At a social gathering later, Wedaman reunited with Reinhardt, who echoed her sentiment that all he did back in 1957 was be nice to someone.
“But in a school of 2,000 kids, there weren’t many who did that,” he said.
Wedaman told how her father, an insurance agent, lost 30 percent of his business because of his support for integration. Her mother helped lead a pro-integration parents group.
So when Elizabeth Eckford came into class that day, Wedaman knew what to do.
“I’m really sorry she had to go through that,” Wedaman said. “But she was strong. They all were.
“I’m just glad that something I did made a difference in somebody’s life.”
Or maybe as Irena Sendler’s father told her when she was young, “If you see someone drowning, you must jump in to save them, whether you can swim or not.”
That’s another quote on the wall at the new Milken Center for Unsung Heroes.
Donald Bradley: 816-234-4182