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ODELL, Ill. (AP) — When Pontiac Township High School teacher Paul Ritter was told seven headstones in St. Paul Catholic Cemetery in Odell were in need of restoration, he knew he could turn it into a project involving several dozen students in different classes.
What he didn't know then was how much the project would intrigue many of those students.
"It really turned into a fascinating project and the more we got into it, the more we felt like we were making a difference," said senior Kelly Fraher.
Previous classes at PTHS have analyzed the effects of acid rain and atmospheric conditions on gravestones. The latest project began last year in Advanced Placement U.S. History taught by Brad Christie, Life Skills taught by Dawn Mack, and the Heartland Community College dual-credit environmental earth science classes taught by Ritter.
It involves figuring out the identities of three Livingston County Civil War soldiers buried at the cemetery. The names on the stones have deteriorated to the point where they cannot be read.
"This normally wouldn't have been such a big problem, except that the records for the cemetery were destroyed in a fire years ago," said Ritter. "Their identity was gone and we felt it was an atrocity because these people had given their lives to our country as Union soldiers and yet there was no way to identify who they were."
So, the three classes boarded a bus and headed for the cemetery.
"Usually, students aren't very excited about going to a cemetery," Ritter said. "But as educators, the kind of energy and commitment they showed made all of us very proud. When we got back, Kelly spent a lot of time and did a lot of research on Ancestory.com and found out even more about these soldiers. That brought it home to them. That made it real."
Each of the three classes took on a different responsibility with the project.
The environmental earth science class concentrated on forensics and gathering any available data from the gravestones. The history class took that information and did additional research while the life skills class concentrated on the effects acid rain had on the stones as well as on four others of Civil War soldiers buried at the cemetery.
"It was really interesting to see how all of the students worked together to try and identify these soldiers," said Mack. "Some were kneeling, some were standing and some were just kind of bent over at the gravesites, but they were examining the stones from all different angles and each one lending a different perspective or thought. But they worked together, learned some new things and accomplished something really cool.
"I have a couple of history buffs in my class as well and they really thought researching people from the Civil War was a great project."
With the help of the Pontiac Granite Monument Co., the soldiers will be getting new headstones. Ritter said a special ceremony is being planned for the spring; a date has not yet been set.
"We have a couple of kids in the band and so the band is getting involved, and now the choir wants to be there to perform as well," he said. "We are also going to contact some veterans groups and make it a very special day.
"The ceremony is going to be something special because it is not only going to honor these Civil War soldiers, but serve as a special moment for these students who were so dedicated to this project," he said. "These students were engrossed, excited and energized about this and really had a strong desire to see this project through to the end."
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