by jim bensley
It has been said that, when teaching history, “The closer you can get to your setting and to primary sources, the more authentic history is going to be.” The man we are honoring here today helped do that for Northwestern Michigan College students in the spring of 2022.
As director of International Services and Service Learning at NMC, each year I try to take my students somewhere in the world to help them understand first-hand the culture and history of that area. Two years ago, I set my sights on France with visits to Paris, Chartres, St. Malo, and Normandy. Once 15 students had registered, I began developing supporting materials to help acquaint them with a country to which none of them had ever been. In preparation, they read the book “All the Light We Cannot See,” were taught how to paint like an Impressionist, studied the lives of black Americans in Paris following the First World War and watched “Saving Private Ryan.” These, and other materials, were insightful, but I wanted something that would add even more depth to their understanding, specifically the D-Day invasion.
I knew Dick Grout from his involvement with the International Affairs Forum, so one day I floated the idea by Major Gen. Mike Lehnert of having Dick speak to my students. I asked if he thought Dick would be willing to share his story. Mike said he probably would and, if he did, he would be happy to make sure Dick got there. On a cold, overcast day in May we all met at President Nick Nissley’s home. As we sat in a circle, Dick humbly revisited his WWII experience in the European Theater. The students asked questions and Dick recounted his time during the D-Day invasion and, later on, the Battle of the Bulge, consistently underscoring the fact he was not someone special and that he and thousands of others were doing the job they had to do.
Before he left, I asked Dick if there were any fellow soldiers he served with to whom we could pay our respects while visiting the American Cemetery in Normandy. At that moment he apologized, because it had been many decades and names of the deceased were difficult to remember.
The 78th anniversary of D-Day + 2, June 8, 2022, in Normandy, France dawned with a mix of clouds, sunshine and rain. When our group arrived at the cemetery, we checked in and asked if there was someone from the 112th Engineering Combat Battalion (Dick’s battalion) to whom we could pay our respects. The woman at the counter looked at our registration and, since we were from Michigan, directed us to the grave of Major William Richards from Marquette.
When we reached his site, the students took a knee in front of the grave. Within minutes, a gentle rain began to fall and most of them soon found cover under the nearby trees. However, three students remained sitting cross-legged at the grave. Their tears mixed with drops of rain as they took out their journals and began composing a letter to Major Richards. They told him about meeting Dick Grout and thanked him for his sacrifice and for that of the others who were laid to rest at this hallowed site. They also spoke to him regarding the sadness they felt for boys their age who had to go to war and for the many families who forever live with an emptiness in their hearts.
I have worked with students for more than three decades and witnessed a variety of emotions; however, this is one of the most profoundly moving experiences I’ve ever observed. (It brought tears to my eyes as well.) The story Dick shared with us in May made WWll real, and helped catalyze a very teachable moment later in June.
Following our time at the cemetery, we visited Omaha Beach and walked the sands where Dick and his fellow soldiers came ashore and where Major Richards lost his life. That evening I sent Dick an email and told him of our very emotional day. He promptly responded and said he remembered Major Richards and the work done in preparing his men in England for that fateful morning in June 1944. He also mentioned that his eyes grew misty reading my email regarding the reaction of the students he had met only a month prior.
Dick Grout sharing his story with my students, and their subsequent visit to Normandy, made a major impact on their understanding of the past. The courage, teamwork, decision-making, sacrifice, suffering and destruction war brings is something they will, no doubt, share with their children and grandchildren long after we are gone. Duty, service, doing the right thing – even when it’s really hard.
These are themes that speak across generations, no matter how old-fashioned they may seem today.
And what of that rain- and tear-soaked letter the students wrote to Major Richards? They left it at the foot of his grave.
Thank you, Dick, for your exemplary service to our nation and to making history real for the younger generation.
About the author: Jim Bensley is the director of International Services and Service Learning at Northwestern Michigan College. This is the speech he delivered at the French Legion of Honor Presentation Ceremony in Traverse City.
by jim bensley