PEORIA, Ill. -- It's a project that changes as frequently as the mail is delivered.
And when it's over, a handful of students from Blaine Sumner Middle School in Peoria will have an amazing amount of information about the Civil War given to them by sons and daughters of men who fought in that conflict.
Teacher Tim Pletkovich began encouraging his students to write to veterans' sons after meeting one at a Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War meeting.
As a result, eighth-grader Kwame Lobdell and Ed Blakeley of Michigan began corresponding several weeks before school began last fall. Other letters from other students followed, and to date, 18 relatives of Union soldiers have provided information the students are using to compile biographical sketches they may even try to have published in book form one day.
The project is now completely extracurricular and voluntary.
"There's always at least one kid who stays after school every day," Pletkovich said.
Kwame and Blakeley exchanged letters until this winter, when Kwame failed to get an answer. Considering Blakeley was to be 99 on Dec. 8, 2002, both the boy and his teacher were concerned Kwame's pen pal had died. But then came a Christmas card from Florida; Kwame's letter caught up with Blakeley in Bradenton, where he and his wife had gone to spend the winter.
Time running out
The incident only drove home to the students how important it is to record these memories while their sources are around to share them.
The students are fascinated to get a perspective on the war so different than textbooks provide.
"It's more real than reading a book," said Anthony Hill, 14, who has written to John Whitman of South Dakota, the son of Nathaniel Amos Whitman, who enlisted in May 1864 at the age of 15.
Because the Union was fighting to free blacks, it's a cause Anthony, who is black, takes to heart.
"I would have fought," he said. "They fought for freedom. I would be scared. I know the conditions were bad, but I would have tried to survive."
Hiram Shouse Jr. has been corresponding with the students and their teacher. He was born when his father was 72.
"It has been only in the past few years that being a live-real son of a Union Civil War veteran has meant much to me," he said by phone from his home in Iowa.
"I just took for granted that I, my brothers and sisters had relatives who fought in the Civil War and all the other wars our country has fought in."
Shouse added a postscript to a letter he wrote to Pletkovich in November, saying: "I think it's great you can get kids interested in something -- anything."