A history lesson all his own

April 11, 2023

The Senior Seminar prompt called for an examination of the United States as a global power in the first half of the 20th century.

Carter Patton ’23 had an abiding interest in World War II, but he knew he needed to narrow things down.

“What could I find from this time period,” he asked himself, “that could really strike a passion in me?”

The answer to that question lay in a tin box in his grandmother’s basement.

Inside he found yellowing WWII era-snapshots, holiday cards from the 1940s, and a few flyers for U.S. Army social events. Mostly he found letters, more than a thousand of them. And within those letters he found the story of a young Army surgeon — his great-grandfather — who was separated from his wife and first child by an ocean and the winds of war.

Many of the individual letters seemed mundane. After poring over them for much of fall semester, Patton realized that taken as a whole, the correspondence told a story far more profound.

And at the heart of this discovery, Carter Patton uncovered the passion he had been looking for.

‘A little overwhelmed’

He wouldn’t have found it without Denison, he says, particularly without the mentorship of history professor Megan Threlkeld.

Patton is a history major with a minor in chemistry and eye on medical school. He chose Threlkeld as his advisor in his first year.

“His level of enthusiasm for Denison was very high even then,” Threlkeld says.

Their teacher-student relationship grew over the years — “I am a frequent flyer in her office hours,” Patton says — and in the fall of 2022 he took his Senior Seminar with her.

“Every history major has to complete a senior experience,” Threlkeld says. “They can either do a two-semester independent senior research project, or they can do what Carter did, which is more typical, which is to take a one-semester Senior Seminar.”

The goal of the seminar is for students to design and carry out their own independent research project, choosing whatever topic they like within a general theme, Threlkeld says — which, in this case, was the United States becoming a world power during the first half of the 20th century.

“Carter spent the first maybe week or two the same way that every student does, which is to think, ‘Oh, I could do this, I could do that, oh I’m really interested in this, or maybe I’ll look at this,’” she says. “And then we were having a meeting in my office one day, and he said, ‘You know, my grandmother has these letters…’ and I’ll be honest, I was hesitant at first.

“I had a sense of how hard it would be in ways that he couldn’t, just because I’ve been through this process before,” Threlkeld says. “I’m a practicing historian. I work with sources like this, and I know that personal letters, no matter how much we like to romanticize them and think, ‘Oh those are the perfect historical sources,’ they’re actually very, very difficult to work with. And these letters turned out to be really difficult to work with.”

Searching for the big picture

The letters in the box had been written by Patton’s maternal great-grandfather, Dr. Dennis Megenhardt, during the three years he spent overseas as an Army surgeon.

Megenhardt grew up in rural Indiana and graduated from Indiana University’s medical school. He married a nurse, Mary Virginia, and started a practice in Indianapolis. When World War II broke out, he decided to enlist. His daughter, Patton’s grandmother, was an infant when he left for Europe.

The box she kept all those years was a treasure trove.

It was made of tin and swaddled in plastic wrap. Tucked inside was assorted memorabilia, including 1,164 letters that Megenhardt wrote his wife, which he sometimes did several times a day. In March 1944, he wrote her more than 80 letters.

All had been stored in chronological order and secured with rubber bands brittle with age.

“Nobody in the family had really touched them,” Patton says.

Some of the letters referenced famous events of WWII, such as the Battle of the Bulge and D-Day, when Megenhardt wrote three letters to his wife: “This is what we’ve been waiting for,” he told her.

Others were personal. Megenhardt wrote of missing his wife and child, and of a peaceful afternoon that turned briefly to terror when, napping in a British field, Megenhardt leapt awake as a shadow passed over him. It was not enemy aircraft on a bombing run, but a soaring crow.

Rarely did he get into detail about his work, even though he was seeing up to 100 patients a day.

“Some days he would just be plowing through patients,” Patton says. “He doesn’t mention the medical stuff as much. He writes that whenever he thinks about it, it saddens him how many people he has to treat.”

But many of the letters were noticeably dry and routine. They included detailed lists of what he ate for dinner or which dignitaries visited his unit.

Threlkeld, from experience, knew why.

“One of the things you immediately have to think about is that this guy is being censored by the Army,” she says. “There is going to be a lot that he can’t say. He’s also going to censor himself; there will likely be things that he doesn’t want to tell his family about because he doesn’t want to worry them. So he probably is not giving the whole picture of his experience in the way that we might think, when we imagine someone writing a letter that bares their soul and tells all their thoughts and feelings.

“These aren’t those kinds of letters,” she says.

Patton began to realize that as he waded through the pages.

“For Carter, one of the biggest challenges was just to embrace the tedium of having to sit with this pile of sources, and wade through them and read all the little details,” Threlkeld says. “He had to put in the time before he was able to start to see the bigger picture of the story these letters were telling him.”

As he pressed on, he realized that the contents of the letters didn’t matter so much. What mattered to his great-grandfather, beset by worry and uncertainty at a frightening moment in world history, was the grounding nature of the practice itself.

“These letters really helped him get through the war,” Patton says. “One of the main consistencies of his life was the act of letter-writing. It helped him process some of the things he was seeing.”

Patton’s recognition of that deeper theme was wonderful to see as an educator, Threlkeld says.

“He trusted me when I told him that he would eventually start to see the bigger picture, and he did,” she says. “And what he figured out in the end that was so great, was that it was the very ordinariness of the letters that made them special.”

Not just students, but ‘whole people’

Patton titled his 30-page paper the way his great-grandfather always had ended his letters: Love + Kisses, Denny: The importance of letter writing for an American Army surgeon during World War II. With Threlkeld’s encouragement, he submitted it to several undergraduate history journals, and he learned in February that the paper had been accepted for publication by Ezra’s Archives, a journal published by Cornell University.

Patton gave members of family copies for Christmas. They bonded over this newly fleshed-out family history, and Patton says the project has sparked in him an interest in genealogy.

“I unfortunately never got to meet my great-grandfather, but I do feel through this project that I’ve been able to connect with him,” he says.

And at Denison, Threlkeld says the relationships forged between students and professors make it a special place.

“It really is incredibly rewarding to me to be able to teach in this environment, where I get to see them not just as students in my class, but really as whole people,” she says. “Being in a smaller school, being in a liberal arts college, being in a place that fosters that kind of relationship, helps me be a better teacher, because I get to know more of who they are.”

Patton has seen this firsthand all throughout his four years at Denison. When he presented his project to the history department faculty and senior students, he says, he was not surprised to see a music professor and biochemistry professor in the audience to support him.

“Even though they might be in other academic disciplines, your professors really care about you, and they will come out to events that they see as significant in your life,” he says. “They care about you so much that they’ll spend time out of their day going to something that you’re passionate about.”

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