Warsaw National History Day team wins at national contest

Four Edgewood Middle School students who won two special awards last year at the national contest for National History Day picked up another one at this year’s event last week.

The Warsaw Community Schools team of Geoffrey Hochstetler, Jason Benyousky, Ryun Hoffert and Keller Bailey received the Civil War History Prize from The Civil War Trust Thursday. Their group performance was titled “The Conflicts and Compromises of Writer and Civil War Soldier Ambrose Bierce.”

For their group performance “The Many Stands of Pearl Harbor” in 2017, the four boys won the Outstanding Indiana Award and the Captain Ken Coskey Naval History special prize of $1,000.

NHD offers year-long academic programs that engage more than a half-million middle and high school students around the world annually in conducting research on historical topics of interest. The research-based projects are entered into contests at the local and affiliate levels, where the top projects advance to the national contest at the University of Maryland at College Park.

During an interview Monday afternoon, the youths said their competitive road to nationals started at regionals at Ivy Tech in Fort Wayne. From there, they moved on to the state contest at Ivy Tech in Indianapolis.

They weren’t the only WCS students who advanced from state to nationals. Lakeview Middle School students Kaylee Ochoa and Rachel Doyle moved on with their exhibit on Eleanor Roosevelt, while Elena Sullivan, Abigail Rahn and Hannah Shapiro advanced with their exhibit on Alexander Hamilton.

The Edgewood team members said they were excited to advance to nationals for a second consecutive year, but they had to make some adjustments to their performance before traveling to the University.

One of those changes was the fake moustaches they used for their roles “because they generally weren’t the greatest,” Benyousky said.

“We did more research,” Hoffert said.

“We fixed up the props that were kind of falling apart,” Bailey said.

Benyousky said they also “actually found out where Ambrose Bierce’s house was” in Warsaw. “Prior to state, we thought it was a different house, the neighbor of the house we actually thought it was. And by doing some research, and actually going to the house and interviewing the people there … they gave us a picture that showed the house and it said ‘Gus Bierce’ – Ambrose Bierce’s brother – ‘at the family farm.’ And it had the same house there. We also found a newspaper that had run that said Gus Bierce inherited the old family farm. So that’s how we actually found out, and no one had done that before.”

The Bierce home is on West CR 200S and owned by Joe Shepherd.

For anyone who doesn’t know who Bierce was, Bailey explained, “Ambrose Bierce was a writer and Civil War veteran who shared what the real war was like, more detailed, gory, not glorified, because writers of his time glorified war and he was unlike those writers and he did not (glorify war). He also inspired other writers like Stephen Crane, who wrote ‘Red Badge of Courage,’ and he also inspired George Sterling, who I play in the skit, to not glorify war.”

Hoffert said Bierce also was from Warsaw, moving here with his family when he was 4 years old. Benyousky said he lived in Warsaw until he was 18, served in the Civil War and then moved to California before ending up in Washington, D.C.

“Nobody knows how he died,” Hoffert said. “People say he either committed suicide by the Grand Canyon or went off to Mexico to join Pancho Villa’s army.”

Around the time Bierce died, World War I started and “people started glorifying war again,” Hoffert said, though a few people continued to tell the real version of war.

Before deciding on the Civil War and Ambrose Bierce for their presentation, Hoffert said they were studying the Battle of Chickamauga, which was fought Sept. 18-20, 1863, between Union and Confederate forces in the Civil War. The Confederates won.

“We were researching the Battle of Chickamauga and we came across someone from Indiana when we were researching it. We decided to see if he had a really interesting story to him. So we dived deeper into him, and we discovered that Ambrose Bierce was the only Indiana native and Civil War veteran to write realistically about war,” Hoffert explained.

“Or at least Civil War frontline soldier,” Bailey said. “There were some others who wrote realistically, but either they didn’t fight in the Civil War or they weren’t frontline soldiers or they weren’t from Indiana.”

Benyousky said they thought Bierce was an interesting person, so they delved deeper into researching him. “It ended up becoming more of his life story in the Civil War than the Civil War,”?he said.

“We dived a lot deeper into Ambrose Bierce as he taught George Sterling what he had been through, the entries he had during the war, and how it was George Sterling’s duty not to romanticize war, but to declare its horrors,” Hoffert said.

“And we had to leave behind our idea of Chickamauga,” Bailey said, because there was a time limit on their presentation and Bierce did not only fight at Chickamauga.

Going to nationals for a second consecutive year, Bailey said they were still nervous.

“We were like nervous, but at the same time, I felt, for me, I felt more reassured because I knew what it would be like and I thought we could do better this time. I honestly think we should have, but we didn’t,” Benyousky said.

In their age division in the presentation category, Benyousky estimated they competed against 80 other teams at nationals.

“For the special awards, you compete against teams from any category,” Benyousky said.

“For some, you compete against any age, as well. For this one, it’s junior and senior,” Bailey said.

He said they received the Civil War History Prize for an Outstanding Entry on the Civil War. It’s given by the Civil War Trust. Bailey said they won’t know how much prize money comes with the award until they receive the envelope, but Benyousky estimated it was probably going to be around $500.

Hochstetler thanked the sponsors, family and friends who helped them along the way with their presentation. Those included Edgewood Principal JoElla Smyth, Edgewood PTO, Kiwanis Club, Optimist Club, Kosciusko County Community Foundation and KCCF Executive Director Suzie Light, Stephanie Weldy, Dr. Douglas and Peggy Sawyer, Warsaw Community Schools and the United Methodist Church.

“It really couldn’t have been accomplished without everyone else helping us,” Benyousky said.