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New GVSU podcast spotlights historical letters and the stories behind the people who wrote them

  • Photos of historical letters
  • Hosts Leigh Rupinski and Jacklyn Rander provide historical context behind the letters read by Grand Valley students.

Posted on September 08, 2017

During World War II, Joseph Olexa, a Detroit native, fought in the Invasion of Normandy, the liberation of Belgium, the Battle of Hürtgen Forest and the Battle of the Bulge as a member of the U.S. Army 26th Infantry Division. 

Throughout his service, Olexa exchanged hundreds of letters with Agnes Van Der Weide, whom he met through a mutual friend and who would eventually become his sweetheart. The pair discussed popular culture of the 1940s, family, military life and their own developing relationship, and Van Der Weide even moved to Grand Rapids during the course of the letters.

These letters will be reenacted by Grand Valley students and dissected by Leigh Rupinski and Jacklyn Rander during the first season of the new podcast, “To the Letter: A Podcast from Grand Valley State University Special Collections and University Archives.”

Rupinski, archivist for public services and community engagement and podcast co-host, said the episodic show was created to provide more exposure to the various historical collections owned by the university.

“As we discuss in the first introductory episode, we aren’t experts on World War II — we’re just enthusiastic and we like to learn,” said Rupinski. “We really hope the podcast engages people with history in a fun and innovative way through the stories of real people.”

During each episode, Grand Valley students read letters from the correspondence as Olexa and Van Der Weide, and Rupinski and Rander, University Libraries’ publishing services manager, explore the historical context. For example, they discuss the mail system during WWII, marriage requirements and popular entertainment of the 1940s.

Grand Valley students will eventually adopt the responsibilities of editing each episode, which Len O’Kelly, assistant professor of multimedia journalism, said will be an advantageous experience for students to add to their resumes.

“Podcast consumption only continues to increase, and students are familiar with them,” said O’Kelly. “It’s important that a successful academic program stay current and relevant, and linking students to new media experiences is yet another way we’re doing that at GVSU.”

“To the Letter” is available via iTunes and on the Special Collections and University Archives blog.