JACKSON TWP — James Lucot doesn't believe in making his students memorize dates.
An educator for 20 years, Lucot teaches history at Seneca Valley High School, where he tries to connect students on a personal level to historic events and the people who were part of them.
There is, however, one important date he requires all students to know: D-Day.
It was that day — June 6, 1944 — in the heat of World War II, when Allied forces invaded northern France via beach landings in Normandy. The estimated 160,000 troops were a fraction of those involved in the greater war, with seemingly no family or community in the United States unaffected.
Although not part of the Greatest Generation, Lucot's connection was prominent throughout his life. An uncle was killed in the war, and some of his earliest memories involve walking to the cemetery behind his Pittsburgh home to visit the grave site.
“I don't have any conscious memory without World War II,” he said.
He also vividly recalls parades and World War I veterans, the two generations overlapping for a brief moment in history. He said this helped form a deep connection, which later led him to want to learn more about his uncle. However, that information was classified, and despite declaring himself next of kin, putting pieces of the puzzle together was challenging.
He took to knocking on doors and writing letters — all done during an era before the prevalence of the Internet — and was able to find three members of his uncle's battalion. At first, he interviewed them to simply learn about his family member, but it became much more.
“I realized how fortunate we are to live in this country and the sacrifices that were made for us to live this way,” he said.
Just like me
Lucot pursued a career in nursing, and later earned a master's degree in administration. However, a state program aimed at putting professionals in classrooms to share their expertise led him to teaching. Despite recommendations that he teach biology and other related fields, Lucot found himself gravitating toward history.
Since then, he has made it a point not to just teach history to his students, but to bring that history to life, a personal passion becoming his life's work.
He said while there is no textbook or memorization, there is plenty of discussion on the greatest moments in history — including World War II — in his classroom. Lucot invites local veterans to share their stories with the class.
He said it can often be difficult for students to relate to things from the past, but hearing and seeing these men speak drives the point home.
“Gradually, the kids start realizing these people are just like me,” he said. “They grew up in the same exact places, they grew up right here, they're just like me and they went and did these things. The magnitude is measurable, not just a bunch of kids sitting around looking at an old man and not having any idea of what he did.”
Lucot's classroom is adorned with photos of him and dozens of veterans, another way for students to see that the stories they're hearing are real. He is quick to point out, however, that it isn't just those who saw heavy action who are heroes — a concept he uses to connect with every student.
“It's not the combat that makes them the hero,” he said. “I don't care if they're a typist or a truck driver, it's the sacrifice and the commitment that make the service, that makes the hero.”
As part of the curriculum, Lucot challenges each student to find a hero in their family and interview them. He said this has led to some amazing discoveries and new connections over the years, and helped give his students a new perspective on what it means to serve.
“I want them to understand sacrifice, commitment, honor, dedication — those definitions don't exist the way they did, but they can,” he said.
Lucot also hopes his students learn about the lasting impact war can have on a person. He said survivor's guilt exists, and “you never know what they're carrying.”
“If you take five years out of your life — five fishing seasons and hunting seasons and birthdays and Christmases and Pirates openers and everything else that you do — and you're in a foreign place, take the combat out of it, you're not going to be the same person when you come back,” he said. “When you compound that with combat — with some guys, heavy combat — there's no way you can be the same person (who) everybody expects you to be when you come back.”
In an effort to honor those who have served, Lucot and a friend, George Pry, have worked to host several Honor Flights. The trips take veterans to Washington, D.C., for the day to tour such places as Arlington National Cemetery and various monuments. They return home and are greeted by letters from local students — “mail call,” as Lucot calls it — and a crowd of dozens in the parking lot thanking them for their service.
Sam Condrick, a Seneca Valley senior who next year will attend law school at the University of Kentucky, has helped with Honor Flight events in the past. She said seeing veterans exit the bus to a crowd holding signs and cheering can be emotional.
“It gives them the parade they never had when they came home,” she said.
Condrick said Lucot's guidance and teaching style have given her the perspective to appreciate things like the Honor Flight. It has also made her feel as though she can relate to people who are several generations older.
“He helps us build these connections with people that in normal, day-to-day life I would have never met,” she said. “(Normally), we study things for a test and then forget them after the test, but when it comes to meeting a person with an experience that I can connect to an event, they become intertwined.”
That education and connection has continued this year, even while Lucot has been on sabbatical from teaching. Although he is pursuing a master's degree in Holocaust and genocidal studies, he still checks in and has worked to link veterans and students. He said he feels it is his responsibility to make sure the Greatest Generation and others are not forgotten, although they will inevitably continue to teach an important lesson.
“They don't want anything,” he said of their modesty. “They don't want statues. These guys, while they don't want praise, they do want to be remembered — by the next generation.”