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Making History: The 2020 History Day State Competition

By Jack Sexton '21

This past weekend, nineteen Saint Thomas Academy projects competed in the first-ever virtual State History Day, a showcase for budding high school historians centered around the theme of “Breaking Barriers.” Of the nineteen projects STA contributed to the competition, eight were named finalists. In the final round, these distinguished projects were broken up into two sections, individual and group, which were then broken down into four project categories: documentary, website, exhibit, and live performance.

Alex Bursey, one of two individual documentary nominees, focused his project on the barrier-shattering election of John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic President of the United States. This election was highly controversial at the time because many questioned whether a Catholic president would take orders from the Pope or from our Constitution. These questions, no doubt built on centuries of religious schism, bias and animosity, potentially “fuel[ed],” according to Alex, “a conflict between the church and state.” Fortunately, John F. Kennedy’s administration quickly dispelled these fears, and his strong, idealistic leadership not only shattered the political ceiling for Catholics in America, but also ushered in the Space Age and Neil Armstrong’s legendary first steps on the moon.

Aidan McGill, Hwaejin Chung, and Kevin Murphy,  one of two groups with a live performance, centered their project on Allan Spear, who served nearly 30 years in the Minnesota Senate (1973 - 2001), and was one of the first openly gay Americans to serve in elected office. Spear played a significant role in the passing of the 1993 Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA), which prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation. The group’s live performance expertly interlaced solemn narrations on the historical background of Spear’s political endeavors with lively reenactments of key moments in his struggle. When asked why the group chose to present on Spear, McGill stated that they felt it was “important to inform our school and the state about the struggles that members of the LGBT face on a daily basis.” McGill also reported that the group learned a great deal about determination and perseverance through their research on Spear, noting his tireless campaign to create the MHRA legislation, a victory that came only after two decades of dogged resilience in the face of numerous setbacks, rejections and defeats.  

 Ethan Kalafatich’s individual documentary featured another ground-breaking American icon, filmmaker Frank Capra, highlighting the way his work in the ‘30s and ‘40s in films such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life echoed Capra’s belief in the heroism of the common man. As Ethan’s film notes in its stunning frames and Ken-Burns-esque slow zoom shots, Capra’s own story mirrored that of his characters. Born in Sicily and arriving in America at five, he was the quintessential “rags to riches story,” and his films, as Ethan’s voice-over notes, tapped into the American public’s depression-era desire for heroes “they could relate to,” characters who spoke of hope and optimism in spite of great odds.

Nicholas Horst, Caleb Smit, and Tommy Sobaski, another group who chose live performance, presented on progressive rock and how bands such as Pink Floyd forever changed American culture. In the performance, Horst states that “Progressive Rock became popular at a very important time in history. With the controversy of the Vietnam War and the rising importance of drugs, people turned to music as an answer or a way to escape their problems.” The group goes on to explain that progressive rock, via its innovations in sound and lyrics, offered its listeners just that: “an otherworldly adventure through music” that altered American attitudes regarding drug use. 

This strain of innovation also runs through Ethan Hiew and Cy Walsh’s project on the Sundance Film Festival.  Featuring revealing interviews and voice clips from the Sundance Film Festival’s founder, Robert Redford, Hiew and Walsh’s documentary, aptly titled “Tornado,” chronicles the film festival’s pioneering aim to bring independent filmmakers directly to their audience, breaking through what Cy Walsh’s voice-over narration refers to as the long-standing “monopolistic control” of big, corporate production companies. 

While Hiew and Walsh spotlight the revitalization of the independent film, Garrison Solliday, Baker Reding and Brian Goblish’s project, titled “Jazz and Culture of the 1920s, focuses on Jazz’s cultural impact on a rapidly changing world. According to Garrison Solliday, this retrospective view of one of music’s most popular and innovative genres was inspired by “want[ing] to shed light on music prior to rap and hip-hop. Jazz was a building block for the music industry, breaking the barrier of ‘White’ music and ‘African American’ music.” Their group project illustrated the transformation of a once regional and segregated music into a globally integrated and popular art form.

A similar thread of regionalism runs through Wil Applebaum and Aidan Mir’s project, titled “Interwar Isolationism,” a documentary focused on Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s isolationist policies prior to World War II. Looking back on his freshman year Geography and Civics class with Mr. Kaeppe, Mir recalls: “If there was one thing that I remember from my Geography and Civics class, it would be (this period).. I remembered this specifically because it changed history for the United States,” recreating it from a regional power to “arguably the biggest world power.” It is their joint interest in this pre-war to World War II-era rise from a reclusive, insular nation to a global superpower that initially inspired this project.  

Likewise, Jack Martin and Patrick Minkel shared a similar interest in the World War II-era. Their group documentary on “D-Day” sends the viewer back to one of the bloodiest and most pivotal battles in history. On June 6th, 1944, roughly 6,000 Americans perished on the Normandy beaches. It is the uncommon service and sacrifice of these soldiers to our country that inspired Martin and Minkel’s work: “Jack and I grew up looking at World War II memorabilia in his father’s office as kids. It was always something that interested us, the military. We figured that this project would help illustrate to others our want to serve our country.” 

Though all projects were inspired by memories and interests, at least one project included a literal journey. Visiting his brother in Syracuse, New York over MEA break, Ronan Lauber witnessed the Erie Canal and museum first-hand: “I  remembered reading...about the Erie Canal. I thought it was interesting how a seemingly small technological marvel was able to completely [transform] the transportation system in the United States.” In his website, Lauber has aptly compiled a series of historical documents such as photographs, maps, newspapers, receipts, and even traveler diaries. These documents complement and animate his commentary on the canal’s construction, and highlight its profound impact on economic growth and urban expansion. Coincidentally, if you want to see the Erie Canal and understand this revolution in transportation, one only has to click on Ronan’s webpage.

From the Jazz Age to D-Day and from the idealistic films of Capra to the independent spirit of Sundance, our STA State finalists transport the viewer to a dazzling array of historical periods and topics. Viewing these highly polished films and exhibitions nearly masks the hours of painstaking research and hard-work that made them worthy of so much distinction. 

While none of our distinguished finalists ultimately advanced to Nationals, two of our group finalists--the “Sundance” duo of Ethan Hiew and Cy Walsh, and the “Alan Spear” trio of Aidan McGill, Hwaejin Chung, and Kevin Murphy--finished fourth in the statewide competition. We are proud of this year’s finalists and we look forward to next year when our aspiring STA historians tackle the “Communication in History” theme. We will, no doubt, continue to shatter new barriers.

Applebaum, Mir "Isolationism" Documentary

Ethan Kalafatich “Capra” Documentary

Hiew, Walsh “Sundance” Documentary

hwaejin chung, aidan McGill, Kevin Murphy performance on Alan Spear

Juaire, Steel “Flying Tigers” group website

Lauber Website

Martin, Minkel "D-Day" Documentary

Reding, Goblisch, Solliday “Jazz and Society” group website

In their story on History Day, KEYC TV of Mankato included images of Alex Bursey's video on the 1960 presidential election.

"John F. Kennedy: The Making of the First Catholic President"  - Alex Bursey

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