"It is not enough to record their military service," stated Knox College President Carter Davidson, as he announced in 1945 that Knox's planned new gymnasium—Memorial Gymnasium—would be named in honor of more than 60 Knox College alumni who died serving in the U.S. military during World War II.
Now, a team of researchers that includes Knox College students, staff, and alumni is drawing fuller pictures of the lives of all 99 members of the Knox community—98 alumni and one faculty member—who died in U.S. military service during the wars of the 20th century.
The free, public exhibit, "99 Lives: The Knox College Gold Star Memorial Project," is on display May 28 through July 9, in the Ford Center for the Fine Arts, on the Knox campus in Galesburg.
At the May 28 opening ceremony, held during the Memorial Day weekend, Knox College Library Director Jeffrey Douglas reminded visitors of Knox's commitment to honor veterans, voiced by Knox President Carter Davidson, even before Memorial Gymnasium was completed in 1951.
"After 67 years it might be easy to overlook the meaning of the 'Memorial Gymnasium' name on the side of the building, but a memorial it is," Douglas said. "A display in the lobby of the gym featured the names and photographs of those who had died in both wars; the display was updated following the wars in Korea and Vietnam."
Douglas said the 99 veterans' biographies, from World War 1 through Vietnam—including photos, hometowns and varying levels of details about student activities—reveal strong links to the Knox of today.
"These past generations of Knox students look to me a lot like the current generation of Knox students," Douglas said. "They were singers, baseball players, writers, leaders in student government; some aspired to careers in medicine, some planned to teach; some came to Knox from small communities nearby, some came from cities far away."
The project began several years ago, starting with research by Jamie Bjorkman of Galesburg, a 1957 Knox graduate who wanted to track down the burial places of Knox soldiers who died in World War II.
A history major at Knox, Bjorkman traveled extensively in search of veterans' gravesites. "I've learned a lot from this project," he said. "It started with curiosity. I wanted to know where they were from, some background on them. You'll learn a lot from the memorials. There's a lot on those granite markers that has escaped the paper record."
As Bjorkman worked in the Knox College Archives, staff put him in touch with students who were doing their own projects on Knox alumni in World War I—Ben Hosto, who graduated from Knox this year, and Sarah Pawlicki, who graduated in 2017.
Bjorkman collaborated with the students, along with staff from the Special Collections and Archives in Knox's Seymour Library.
"Originally I was creating short biographies of the Knox men who gave their lives in the First World War," Hosto said at the opening ceremony. "Since then, I've expanded Jamie's and my own research to the Knox Gold Star soldiers from WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. It's been an absolutely fascinating experience, especially being able to catch glimpses into campus life during those periods."
The title of the exhibit refers to the red-bordered service banner flown by families with members in the U.S. armed forces. A gold star on the banner represents a family member who died in the service during wartime.
Photos above and below, Jamie Bjorkman and students Ben Hosto and Sarah Pawlicki, in the Knox College Archives.
"There's definitely a wide range of detail, and some veterans have a lot more information about them than others," said Hosto, a history major from La Moille, Illinois, who's also been president of the campus Book Club and has competed in both track and cross country for the Prairie Fire.
"One of the most interesting for me has been Curtis Redden—the one faculty member in the 99. He was assistant director of physical education for men," Hosto said. "Redden had fought previously in the Spanish American War and then was drafted to fight in World War I." Redden, who died in 1919, is listed among the Gold Star veterans because he sucumbed to war-related injuries. Hosto said one of the surprising details he learned was that many of the veterans died from influenza, stemming from the worldwide "Spanish flu" pandemic of 1918.
The veterans' biographies show "active participation while at Knox," Bjorkman said at the opening. "Athletics, theater, band, debate, Glee Club, Rifle Club, Bible Club, fraternities, campus leadership. You can visualize what their futures might have been.
"We hope people will take our research, correct our mistakes, fill in the gaps, and add to our findings," Bjorkman said. "And we hope this quest will never end."