Writing a children’s book about the World War II canteen in North Platte turned into a decade-long research journey for Eric Gross.
Now that he’s succeeded, the Appalachian State University elementary education professor — who first visited North Platte in search of his book in May 2012 — will be in town all week to promote the debut of “Canteen: Sacrifice and Society During World War II.”
He will speak to Grade 4 North Platte Public Schools on Tuesday and fourth graders McDaid on Wednesday. Talks for all ages will be at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Lincoln County Historical Museum and noon Thursday at the North Platte Public Library.
“The Canteen,” priced at $16.99, will be available for purchase at the Groce Library Chat. It will also be for sale at the Museum 2403 N. Buffalo Bill Ave. and Fort Cody Trading Post, 221 Halligan Drive.
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Gross, who trains future social studies teachers at the university in Boone, North Carolina, plans to make other book tours nationwide.
“But I wanted to start here to honor the community in which[the canteen]was raised,” he told The Telegraph Monday.
Filled with WWII-era photographs, Groce’s 108-page book, North Platte’s 1941-46 arrival, brings visitors to U.S. and Allied troop trains to discuss and depict the wartime sacrifices of home front residents.
Nebraska has always asked its elementary school students to learn about the history of their state during their fourth grade school year. Gross said other states are doing the same with their students.
His first weeklong visit to North Platte a decade ago had stuck in his head since he first read Bob Greene’s 2002 book Once Upon a Time: The Miracle of North Platte Canteen.
Gross’ 2012 local interviews for his book included Canteen Customer and Milo “Mike” Shavlick, a current North Platte resident; Jane Slattery, “The Boy Who Sold His Shirt” and Raised Over $2,000 for the Canteen; Canteen characters Ethel Botolf, Lauren Hubner, Doris Kugler, Rosalie Lippincott, Anita Schumer and Lloyd Sinovich. All the last five died.
Jim Griffin, director of the Historical Museum, helped him find them all. “We went to see whoever Jim said ‘that’s somebody who’s still alive,'” Gross said.
His efforts after 2012 to publish his book in a canteen would last nearly twice as long as World War II, which lasted six years.
Gross said he submitted his manuscript to 30 publishers, and sent each of them a “life-size” visual outline.
“A lot of people said, ‘Don’t do that,’ he said. ‘I said, ‘They need to see what I have.'”
He believes that young readers need photographs and illustrations – of both historical people and artifacts – to gain the contexts that make history come alive.
When future teachers take an undergraduate class at Groce on social studies methods, “I ask them at the beginning of the semester, ‘How was social studies for you growing up?'” They’re like, ‘They were white names and dates and places and elders,'” he said.
Most of the 30 Groce publishers rejected it, though one in Nebraska” said, “I love your book and I think it’s going to be a success,[but]not just for us.” “
Finally, Gross heard a year ago from Arcadia Children’s Books publisher Nancy Ellwood. She “just called, introduced herself and said, ‘I’m interested in this. Is this still available?”
When he talks about the canteen, Gross said, he seeks to inspire listeners to emulate founder Ray Wilson, his successor Helen Krist and other core volunteers at North Platte and 55,000 people from 125 communities in Nebraska and Colorado who served 6 million people over 51 months.
When he has students studying a book, “I always say, ‘So what?’ What can I learn from this resource? How can I apply this to my life? Because if you don’t, it’s (just) a neat anecdote – “Oh, they just got together and did this.”
Gross said he tested the content of his book with students at more than 50 North Carolina schools before finally publishing “Cantine.”
He urges children to “find a way to practice generosity and kindness,” as North Platt and its neighbors have done.
Groce uses Canteen Volunteers’ savings and sharing of sugar and gasoline ration stamps—as described and discussed in the book—to steer this point home.
“Just because you have money doesn’t mean you can buy sugar,” he said during World War II. “And then your mom will bake a birthday cake and give it to a (Union Pacific) warehouse to someone you’ve only met for 10 minutes?”
He was amazed that the Canteen Honor Roll communities collected gas quota stamps for driving up to 200 miles to and from North Platte.
“The most common labels are the ones where you get three or eight gallons a week,” Gross said.
Cantine also stresses President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s call for every American to do his part in winning the war. the innumerable ways in which women served their homeland at home, at work, or even in uniform; And North Platte Canteen’s insistence on serving all incoming military or spouses at a time when apartheid was still rampant.
Gross said he remembered asking a canteen volunteer about the last point. She said: Our city, our rules. She said, ‘When I got off this train, it doesn’t matter how many (service) lines you have or the color of your skin. You are welcome in our town.”
When he talks to fourth graders in North Platte this week, “I’m going to leave the kids with this: You should be very proud. It’s part of your town’s history.”