November 29, 2020

BRINGING HISTORY TO LIFE: Emmetsburg High School Students Win National Honors

National History Day Emmetsburg MaxYield

Tegan Olson, left and Josie Wickman.

When Sue Strube challenged her U.S. history students at Emmetsburg High School to participate in the National History Day competition, they didn’t just complete the assignment. They created remarkable projects that reflected this year’s theme of “Turning Points in History” and earned top honors at the national competition in Washington, D.C.

“All students—regardless of their ability—can be highly successful and learn a lot through this project,” said Strube, who has taught at Emmetsburg High School for 23 years. “Some of our greatest success stories have come from kids who aren’t necessarily the top students in their class, but they are passionate about their topics and really put their heart into their research and presentations.”

The hook is to find topics that interest students, said Strube, who offered a number of suggestions to the juniors in her U.S. history class last fall. For Tegan Olson, 17, the 1965-66 Texas Western Miners men’s basketball team provided a powerful lesson in desegregation.

“We learned how segregated the South was in those days,” said Olson, whose group created the display board “Changing the Face of Collegiate Athletics: More Than Black and White.” “Back then, many black athletes didn’t get to start or even play on teams.”

It took the courage and conviction of Texas Western Coach Don Haskins to help break the color barrier. He had inherited an integrated team and often started four to five black players in games. This stood in sharp contrast to teams like the University of Kentucky, a basketball powerhouse that didn’t recruit or play black athletes.

When the Miners (now the University of Texas at El Paso [UTEP]) defeated Kentucky in the 1966 NCAA national championship, they secured not only a trophy but a place in American history. The team’s powerful story was retold in the 2006 film Glory Road. “I thought it was really cool how one game could change the world,” said Olson, who is a student athlete.

To learn more about the Texas Western Miners and desegregation, Olson and her teammates, Hadley Egland, Erik Drost, Landon Shiek, and Shay Mortenson, broke the project into three sections: segregation and struggle, more than black and white (focusing on Coach Haskins), and a lasting legacy. They wrote to Haskins’ widow, Mary, who still lives in Texas and was pleased to help the students.

“Mary said the reason she felt Don was colorblind was because he had a black friend he played basketball with when he was a kid,” said Olson, who noted that Haskins started four black players one time when the Miners played Iowa.

The students also contacted Louis Baudoin, a white athlete who played on the Miners’ 1965-66 championship team. “He sent us his jersey and newspaper articles from that time,” said Olson, whose team worked on their project for six months before competing—and winning—at the district, state, and national levels.

The legacy of the Miners lives on, Olson added. “Coach Haskins did what he believed was right. After the Miners won the championship, other teams started recruiting black athletes. Now, more than 70% of male college athletes in America are black.”

You’ve come a long way, baby

The 1960s and 1970s marked a time of dramatic cultural change, not only with desegregation but with women’s rights. Josie Wickman, 17, and her classmates focused on the second-wave feminist movement for their National History Day project.

“One of our big topics was Title IX, which banned gender discrimination in athletics and academics,” said Wickman, whose mother, Lori, works in the office at MaxYield Cooperative’s Mallard location. “We also talked about what problems led to the women’s rights movement, what women like Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan did to change things, and what happened after that.”

Through extensive research at the library and online, Wickman and her teammates, Hannah Bird, Austin Krause, Queen Mukami, and Brian James, compiled “The Personal Is Political,” which they presented in a website and picture slideshow. “In those days, women were expected to be housewives and didn’t have as many opportunities,” Wickman said. “In some ways, a lot of women’s rights issues are still unresolved.”

Learning and winning

Both Olson’s team and Wickman’s team qualified for the state competition after earning top honors at the district National History Day competition in Okoboji in March. In April, the students competed in Des Moines, where they were surprised to qualify for the national competition in early June.

“We really weren’t expecting to go on to nationals,” Wickman said. “I’m glad we had the opportunity, though. It was fun, and the best part was meeting other kids.”

Both of Emmetsburg’s winning teams were personally vested in their topics and were willing to edit their information and presentation style to create a better product, Strube said. “That’s the key—being willing to do the work in the first place, revise and edit as necessary, and work together to get the job done,” added Strube, who began incorporating National History Day into her classes in 1996 and reintroduced the program in the past couple years. “These skills are all necessary in the real world and will benefit the students long after they graduate from high school.”

Did You Know:

• Since 1996, Emmetsburg has sent more than 33 projects on to the state competition. More than 10 projects have qualified for the National History Day Competition in Washington, D.C.

• Emmetsburg High School has been named Outstanding School in Iowa for State History Day several times.

• Sue Strube was named Outstanding History Day Teacher in Iowa in 1999.

• Much of the success of the History Day program involves extensive research, personal interviews, and primary source materials. Some students have traveled to South Dakota to research the Pony Express and Iowa City to interview Carrie Chapman Catt’s nephew.

• A number of Emmetsburg High School National History Day projects have been used in other venues. An exhibit on the dredging of Five Island Lake won an award from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and was displayed at the local Chamber of Commerce office. A documentary on the demise of Arnolds Park received the Best of Iowa award at State History Day and has been featured in the Okoboji Historical Museum.

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