When the organizers of a project to collect stories and artifacts of world war veterans started out with a table in the Downtown Chatham Centre, they didn’t know what to expect. But a line at the door waiting for the mall to open convinced them there was an appetite for their work.
“We had no idea if anyone would show up,” recalls Garna Argenti, coordinator of the Gathering Our Heroes project, of the October 2009 weekend. “They were lined up at the door before the mall was opened and that’s when we knew, people want this information valued and they want it preserved.”
She is president of IODE Kent Regiment Chapter, which along with the Chatham-Kent Museum, Jerry Hind of the Search Goes On, and A. Thiel Marketing, received a 2015 History Department Community Heritage Medal from the UWindsor history department for their partnership on the project.
Gathering Our Heroes invites community members to contribute to a living history through an interactive website. The project enhances the broader understanding of those wars, enriches local community history, and provides the public with novel ways to participate in commemorating the conflicts.
There are now 7,000 heroes on the website, with another 4,000 names in the database waiting to be verified. Argenti says people keep sending in information, which is a great thing, but also poses a challenge.
“We don’t just take families’ word for it because stories get handed down through generations,” says Argenti. “We take great pains to ensure information is historically accurate before we post it on the site.”
History professor Miriam Wright says this project exemplifies teamwork. It brings together various groups of people who share a love of Chatham-Kent military history and who understand these wars were not just fought overseas—they were part of the community.
“The sons and daughters from the region came together, volunteered and went overseas, and some never came back,” says Wright, who served on the committee that chose the medal recipients. “It all left an indelible mark on the region’s history and this website tells the local stories of the people who served in the wars.”
This is the first year the department has given the medals, which recognize outstanding achievement in raising the profile of local history and heritage throughout Essex, Lambton and Kent Counties. Five were awarded this year.
“We are just absolutely honoured,” says Argenti. “We really worked hard on this project. To receive recognition, especially from the University of Windsor, is very special for us.”