CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. — What started as a donated suitcase filled with World War II artifacts, turned into a quasi family reunion luncheon at Swift Creek Middle School in Chesterfield County on Monday. Seventh-grade history students at the school uncovered the mystery behind who it belonged to and even connected with the sailor’s living family.
Pam Rockenbach Plas, the Social Studies Department leader at the school, said a colleague approached her in 2019 after his neighbor mentioned an old suitcase with artifacts inside they had at their historic house in Bon Air, Virginia.
“He said, ‘Oh, there’s a history teacher who would love to have that suitcase because he knows what a history nut I am,” Rockenbach Plas said.
After planning a research project with her class in 2019, pandemic safety restrictions put the idea on hold. This year Rockenbach Plas asked 35 of her 7th graders to dig into the origins of the suitcase and its contents.
“The first thing we did was brainstorm questions about all the things we were seeing in this suitcase and what we wanted to do with things in this suitcase,” she said.
The suitcase offered a few scant details at first.
The Naval uniform and a notebook inside the suitcase referenced the name Leonard Daniel Kelley.
Kelley served in the Navy and lived in Crewe, Virginia, nearly an hour away from where the suitcase had been kept in Bon Air.
Using historical records, including available property, military, and census documents, the 7th graders pieced together Mr. Kelley’s life and any relatives who might still be around the area.
“One of the driving goals for the students on this project was to find living relatives because the things that were in it were so special,” Rockenbach Plas said.
Earlier this year, the students uncovered a list of heirs connected to Mr. Kelley’s wife. They ran the names through Realtor.com and found listings for several people who appeared to be his relatives.
In New Bern, North Carolina, Delle Curry received letters from several of the Swift Creek Middle students saying they had Mr. Kelley’s suitcase and believed she was related to him. Curry and her sister Matilda Conley knew Kelley as their uncle.
“Everybody in the family called him Kelley,” Curry told the class full of students, as the sisters and their husbands met to talk about Kelley and their memories of him.
“That was just so exciting to think that the kids were initiating a lot of this,” Curry said in an interview. “Now, whether he had meant for them to be saved or not, we don’t know. But it was really neat to see that these things had been saved from his life.”
“We only knew him as an engineer. So we didn’t know a whole lot about his past, his Navy career. Because when they got married, we were about the age these kids are right now,” Conley said.
Kelley’s family will soon get to keep his items and suitcase, but students do plan to further research his life and stay in contact with Curry and Conley.
“It’s giving them an understanding that history is not just dates. It’s human people. It’s people, and they have stories to tell,” Rockenbach Plas said of the project.
“I hope they’ll learn to delve into things more and not just take them at face value,” Curry said.
“I want to see them find out as much about Kelley as possible. I also want to see them take these lessons on into the future. It will help them in their studies if they dig deeper into everything. If they know to ask questions rather than just accepting what the professor says or the book says but go on and try to dig,” Conley said.
While the students have connected the dots on much of Kelley’s life and living family, there is one mystery they still have to figure out: how did his suitcase filled with military memorabilia end up in Bon Air?
“Yes, so that’s one they’re going to [look into]. I found out some leads, but I’m not saying because the kids have to follow this through!” Rockenbach Plas said.