Who was Joshua Henry Bates?
That was the question students in JD Ott’s history class at R.A. Long High School faced recently during their study of World War I. The teens knew he was a soldier during that war. They knew he died in one of the many ferocious battles. And they knew he had a connection to their high school.
To solve the mystery, the young people pored over documents such as letters, Western Union telegrams, era photographs and family tree charts to figure out the man’s importance.
All the while, R.A. Long librarian Joan Enders smiled and coaxed them in their endeavors. If they had questions about a piece of evidence, she and Ott challenged them to look at the bits of history with a detective’s eye.
Enders knew Joshua’s secret. But she wasn’t about to tell.
It was up to the kids to figure it out.
Learning about the man
Bates was the first son of six children born to Eliza (Petersen) and Joshua Bates in Wanship, Summit, Utah. The family were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Joshua’s father was a sheep rancher.
The younger Joshua graduated from high school in 1915. He went on to graduate from the University of Utah. He immediately began teaching and served as principal for the one-room school in Wanship.
Enders, who keeps all the documents and other materials about Bates, said the young man was passionate about education. He wrote about his fledgling career in his journals.
“My favorite quote is, ‘Friday November 17: To school all day. Have arithmetic nearly all day. The students are very dense or else I could not get it over to them,” Enders said.
She laughs at the similarity of teaching from back then and now.
“Another time he stews about the superintendent making a surprise visit to evaluate him, and he writes about going to classes at night, and about dancing late on school nights only to get up early to go teach,” Enders said. “A teacher’s life has not changed much. Well, except the dancing all night.”
While Bates was creating a life as an educator, the rest of the world was in the middle of the Great War, World War I, which began in 1914.
In 1917, the U.S. entered the conflict. Bates registered June 5 the same year. He was taken into the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in the second enlistment wave and became a private 1st class while at Camp Lewis in Washington (now known as Joint Base Lewis-McChord) south of Tacoma.
“When they discovered that he could read and write, he started working at the hospital with all the battalion’s medical records,” Enders said.
He arrived in France on June 27, 1918, Enders surmises from the materials in her possession. Because of safety concerns, communications from the soldiers deployed overseas were edited.
“The Red Cross postcard only divulges that the ship on which the battalion traveled arrived safely,” she said.
The students in Ott’s classes examine copies of all the documentation in Elders’ collection. When the duo first began teaching this lesson four years ago, they laid out each original piece.
Enders asked the students to wear gloves when handling the fragile items, but noticed some students were not diligent.
“Then we decided we should just have good quality copies,” she said. “Like the Western Union telegram — you can see where it’s folded, even with it being a copy. You can see how the dad had torn it open.”
The original telegram is sort of dirty, Enders said.
“It was like he was out working and just ripped it open right then and there,” she said.
It was the notice soldiers’ parents dreaded, informing them that on Oct. 4, 1918, during the Muesse St. Mihiel engagement, their beloved son was killed. He was 23 years old.
He was the last man to lose his life before his unit, Company D of the 347th Machine Gun Battalion, was relieved by reinforcements.
Finding his story
Even though the students know the fate Bates met, for some it still is an emotional experience.
Sofia Sanchez and the other members of her three-student team, Circe Boicoff and Jane Cooper, found themselves drawn into Bates’ life. They saw photos of him as a baby and, later, as a young soldier palling around with his buddies at Camp Lewis.
The young women and the other participants in the lesson touched (through plastic) a hand-embroidered scarf — a gift to Bates from his girlfriend, Rena Smith.
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The relationship between the soldier and his girl intrigued them.
“I want to know more about Rena,” Circe said. “We don’t know if they’re lovers or what.”
They read letters from friends describing Bates as very loyal, trustworthy and cheerful, Jane said.
And when they got to the part where his death is revealed to his parents, “I was sad. I started tearing up,” Sofia said.
Those words are music to Enders’ ears.
“They wonder what is the significance of studying this man? Some get sucked into the personal story right away, and others figure there has to be some sort of catch,” she said.
If the students are thinking about other aspects of Bates’ life, then they are learning what Ott hopes.
“As we look at these documents, it’s not just to read the document, find out information and answer a question,” he said. “It’s to find out about Joshua H. Bates as the person, the soldier and life in 1914 in the United States, and during the war.”
Spreading the message
The course Enders and Ott present sprang to life as part of an educational path called “common core.”
For history learners, the goal was to use primary source materials — original documents created firsthand by the subject, photographs and other personal items — to learn about time periods.
The books publishers introduced for students were “huge, beautiful” Enders said, but contained primary documents that could also be obtained online.
“Most of them were very long, detailed and difficult. I didn’t even want to read it,” she said. “They (teachers) were attempting to use these in the classroom and getting more and more frustrated.”
After she obtained the collection of Bates’ history, Enders proposed a class using the primary and secondary documentation included within the stockpile.
“We started that year with his (Ott’s) advanced placement U.S. history class, and the response was really good,” she said.
They decided to use it with all the classes the following year. The popularity of the course among the young people and administrators at R.A. Long pushed Enders and Ott to take the course to regional and national audiences. So far, they have presented the program at the National Conference of Social Studies held in Seattle and at the Washington Library Media Association.
“The adults have been just as excited as the students,” Enders said. “I’ve gone out on my own and presented to a couple of church groups here in Longview, and they’ve had just a blast with it too.”
Although Bates was not famous, his story is compelling, she noted.
“It makes it a human story,” she said. “It makes them connect them with somebody and start piecing that together.”
Enders, who is a bit of a genealogy buff, is intrigued with the notion these young people might take away not only an interest in somebody’s else’s history, but perhaps their own.
“I imagine what is it going to be like for them when they are connecting with somebody in their own history,” she said. “It’s going to be a goose bump situation.”
Sort of like the day her cousin, who is now deceased, brought a huge box of items about Bates to her home.
The plethora of personal records thrilled her, and allowed her to get to know Bates — her uncle.
The mystery of his connection to R.A. Long via Enders is seldom solved by the students, but it inspires them to dig, Enders said. At the end of the lesson, they are tasked with writing a report about Bates. No one has guessed he is related to Enders.
“There were audible gasps when I debriefed with them,” she said. “I am sure they were thinking, ‘Dang ... she doesn’t look that old to have an uncle die in WWI.’ ”
Enders said she has kept some of her favorites of the student essays.
“Some did very well,” she said. “Of course, that is our goal, for them to devour, interpret and synthesize from primary documents to reach conclusions.”
And, Enders said, she and Ott hope they learn that it’s not just the moments written about in history books that create the fabric of the past.
“Each individual person makes the big history.”