Indiana students learn an invaluable history lesson

Indiana teacher Tom Clark, who himself served in Afghanistan, assigns his high school students to find the families of fallen veterans and collect their stories.
CBS News

(CBS News) ST. JOHN, Ind. - On every Memorial Day and Veterans Day, we vow not to forget those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. But there is a teacher who believes that before we can truly remember these fallen heroes, we have to take the time to know who they were.

There's barely enough room for the students in Tom Clark's classroom as it is surrounded by numerous military-related items and American flag. To this reporter, Clark shows off such things as a hat from Afghanistan and a Russian helmet with holes in it.

It looks like a museum.

"It is," Clark agrees. "Or it looks like a garage sale."

If it's a museum, his students have been its curators for 27 years. Each semester, this teacher at Lake Central High School in St. John, Indiana, hands out names of troops from his state who died at war and assigns students to find their families.

"We're putting a story behind their names," said Clark. "They're no longer just names, they are people. They had lives, they went to school, they had friends, they had feelings." As for the numbers families his students have talked to, Clark said hundreds.

Student Victoria Morales was assigned to find the family of Army Spec. Matthew Frantz, who was killed in Iraq in 2006. Frantz's mother shared memories about her son with Morales. CBS News

Victoria Morales was one of Clark's students last year. She was assigned to find the family of Army Spc. Matthew Frantz. Frantz was killed in 2006 by a roadside bomb in Iraq. For years, his mother Marilyn could barely speak about it.

"After a while, she was just willing to talk and show me different awards and video clips of Matthew," said Morales. "And we stayed for a few hours and we were watching. I was like, 'Wow!' It was pretty moving."

Morales was so moved that she kept in touch with Mrs. Frantz after the class ended. The Frantzes were more than happy to share.

"For me, it keeps Matthew alive a little bit," said Marilyn Frantz. "'Cause when I talk about him, it's like he's still here."

Tom Clark, who served in Afghanistan, doesn't test his students on the information they collect. His mission is bigger than that.

"Instead of just memorizing it," he said, "they learn how to feel history, to feel what America is all about."

It's about the collection of stories and sacrifices that help shape a nation.