• Young historians take on unconventional subjects
    By David Delcore
     | April 09,2006

    BARRE – Eliza Heitzman would happily have settled for some promised extra credit in her advance placement history class, but the junior at Spaulding High School and Barre Technical Center Campus got much more than she bargained for at the Vermont History Day competition on Saturday.

    In addition to collecting a $50 "Pathways to Liberty Prize" sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union, Heitzman, who lives in Barre Town, earned the right to travel to the University of Maryland near Washington, D.C., in June for the National History Day competition. There, her historical paper on controversial stand-up comedian Lenny Bruce will be judged against dozens of others written by high school students around the country.

    Heitzman's paper – "The Outlaw Lenny Bruce" – didn't take the top prize in the Vermont competition's "senior division" this year, but it was the runner-up – narrowly edging out a paper on Madeleine Kunin authored by Ian Hemley of Burlington High School that took third place.

    Heitzman said the only reason she entered was to get the extra credit prom-ised by her history teacher, Jerry Desmaris.

    That sounded like a good deal, according to Heitzman, who said she is keenly interested in contemporary history and was intrigued by the prospect of writing about Bruce after reading his autobiography "How To Talk Dirty and Influence People."

    "It seemed like an unusual topic," she said, describing Bruce as a champion of free speech, who paved the way for comedians like Richard Pryor and George Carlin.

    "He (Bruce) used a lot of obscenity and very sexually provocative language," she said. "He wanted to be able to speak as freely in public as he did in his home."

    Bruce was pardoned of an obscenity charge long after he died of a drug overdose in 1966.

    Heitzman said she found her research into Bruce's life and death fascinating.

    "I learned about civil liberties and the importance of free speech in modern society," said the first-time participant in Vermont History Day.

    "I didn't know about it last year," she said.

    Neither did Abigail Sargent.

    A home-schooled student, Sargent, 14, of Barre Town learned about the contest this year and after considering the theme – "Taking a Stand in History: People, Ideas, Events" – she decided to put together an exhibit on Florence Nightingale.

    "It was a lot of work," Sargent said, standing in front of her project in the Spaulding gymnasium on Saturday.

    The hardest part, according to Sargent, was making her point in 500 words or less.

    "You really have to choose your words carefully," she said. "Unfortunately I like to use lots of words."

    That can be a problem, according to Lynn Williams of Ludlow.

    Williams, a veteran Vermont History Day participant and self-described "nerd," said she has learned to make every word count.

    "I can be quote happy," said the senior at Black River High School.

    On a day when judges rated 150 exhibits, papers, and documentaries on people ranging from Fred Tuttle and Jackie Robinson to Abenaki Chief April Rushlow and Oprah Winfrey, Williams was enjoying her final Vermont History Day.

    "I've been entering since I was in seventh grade and this is it … I'm a senior," she said.

    Williams, who tried her hand at a documentary as a seventh-grader has been competing in the individual exhibit category ever since, and she may have saved her best for last.

    "This one is right up there," she said, standing in front of an elaborate display featuring detailing Margaret Sanger's work as a pioneer for birth control.

    "I didn't want to do something on Native Americans or Rosa Parks and this seemed interesting," said Williams, who invested countless hours on a project that clearly got the attention of judges, like Sen. Mark MacDonald, D-Orange.

    "It was an incredible piece of work," MacDonald said, of the exhibit, which stood nearly six feet tall and included a collection of photos – some framed, most matted – and factoids on a background of enlarged photographs – two taken by Williams at the museum where she works and the other borrowed from a book about Sanger.

    "I love the fact that it looks old," Williams said, admiring her handiwork.

    Williams, who hopes to one day become a museum curator, took top honors in the "senior individual exhibit" category and is looking forward to attending the national competition in June.

    It won't be the first time.

    Williams won the Vermont competition as an eighth-grader and then again as a sophomore. Her earlier exhibits both received "Best of State" honors when judged at the next level.

    "I love history to death," she said. "I guess you could say I'm a bit of a nerd."

    In addition to winning the senior individual exhibit category, Williams collected the $250 "Women's History Award" – one of more than $2,500 in special awards that were won by participants during an increasingly popular annual event that featured a brief address by Gov. Jim Douglas.

    Williams wasn't the only competitor for whom history repeated itself on Saturday. Mary Cain, a freshman at Brattleboro Union High School, won for the fourth straight year – this time on the strength of his latest documentary: "Save the River! Abbie Hoffman Takes a Stand."

    Abbie Hoffman the environmentalist?

    It's true, according to Cain, who told a panel of three judges that he was inspired by piece of "local lore" that he picked up while spending summers with his family on an island in the St. Lawrence River in upstate New York. That is where Hoffman – a social and political activist who was a member of the "Chicago Seven," – lived for several years under the assumed name Barry Freed.

    According to Cain, Hoffman, a "Yippie radical" who was wanted on drug charges at the time, founded "Save the River" – a local grassroots organization that successfully prevented the Army Corps of Engineers from pursuing plans to expand the St. Lawrence Seaway.

    In five Hoffman biographies Cain found only 10 pages that dealt with that portion of his life, but was able to interview some of the people who worked with him on the "Save the River" campaign – a group that included his widow, Johanna Lawrenson.

    "I really learned a lot," said Cain, whose slickly produced documentary featured live footage of the St. Lawrence River, a montage of snapshots and news clips, and portions of his interviews, clearly impressed the judges.

    "You uncovered a side of Abbie Hoffman I did not know," Denise Youngblood, a history professor at the University of Vermont, told Cain.

    Later Nancy Tanzer, a retired history teacher who is a member of the Coolidge Foundation, echoed that assessment while discussing the seven entries in the senior individual documentary category.

    "We all learned something today, absolutely, and that's a great experience," Tanzer said.

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