About one year ago, my wife started de-cluttering our house. Wedding gifts that we still hadn’t used five years into our marriage went away. Nick knacks went to the garbage. Rarely played board games and the toys our kids didn’t play with often (and the toys that made too much noise) went to live at Goodwill. The items we kept not only had to justify their existence, but they had to fit into an organization system.
After several months, our house felt like it had doubled in size. It was amazing the difference made as we adjusted our habits and learned to let go of things that we “might need someday” despite not needing today.
Still, I don’t judge people who hold on to stuff, especially after I recently learned that people who don’t throw anything away can serve a valuable purpose.
This April 6 marks exactly 100 years since the day the U.S. officially entered World War I. For the upcoming edition of the Lynchburg College Magazine, I wanted to write an article about what life was like at the College during the war. At that time, the institution was named Virginia Christian College and was less than 15 years old.
Ariel Myers, the archivist in the Knight-Capron Library, helped me find some information in old copies of the yearbook (The Argonaut) and the student newspaper (The Critograph). I learned about an alumnus named Wilbert H. Norton who became one of the College’s first students to serve in the war. But before the war, he won a speech contest with a speech titled, “The Price of Peace.”
What was that speech about? I wondered.
If only I could get my hands on a copy.
Ariel searched the archives to see whether a copy may have been printed in a literary magazine, or stored in a folder somewhere. In the meantime, I searched the College’s alumni directory and discovered that about 30 years after Wilbert H. Norton graduated, another person by the same name earned a degree at Lynchburg College. Naturally I assumed there was some relation. I called the younger Wilbert Norton and asked him. And, sure enough, the speech prize-winning WWI veteran was his father.
The Wilbert “Hank” Norton Jr. told me about his father, who was raised by parents who had little money but managed to put nine of their 11 children through college. “That was unheard of at the time,” said Hank.
Hank Sr. started at the College of William and Mary but transferred to Virginia Christian College, which was more affordable and was affiliated with his faith, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He was wounded multiple times in Europe and received the Purple Heart. After the war, he returned to college (by then it was named Lynchburg College) and later attended law school. He practiced law and served in the state legislature in West Virginia for many years.
Hank Jr. mentioned that he has a copy of the letter that his father wrote when he resigned from a job in order to serve in the Marine Corps. My eyebrows shot upward and the gears in my head turned. If he had a copy of a letter his father wrote 100 years ago, might he have a copy of a speech written not long before?
I mentioned “The Price of Peace,” and Hank Jr. thought about it. “I’ll look for it,” he said.
For the next few days, I got a daily voicemail from Hank Jr. “My brother and I have both seen what you’re looking for, but we haven’t found it yet,” he said.
“My grandson is coming into town this weekend to help us look for it,” he said in another voicemail.
Finally, “We found that document you were looking for.”
I called back, excited, and left my fax number. Soon, I had a copy of “The Price of Peace” in my hands. It was an invaluable treasure that added greatly to the article about the impact that the First World War had on students in Lynchburg, Virginia.
I realized that this never would have happened if a family hadn’t held on to these papers for more than a century. If someone had said, “We’ll never need a copy of a speech dad gave in college,” then Hank Sr.’s words would have been lost to history.
I don’t know how much room Hank Jr. has devoted to his father’s documents. But I’m glad that he held onto this speech — as well as many other documents his father amassed in his career as a lawyer and legislator. In fact, I’ve thought about meeting Hank Jr. sometime to digitize the documents and write more about his father’s interesting life.
None of this is an argument de-cluttering or in favor of hoarding. But since one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, I understand that the desire to hold on to something that could be thrown away can sometimes yield tremendous value.