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Erika Rice and Geoff Wickersham

Groves High School student-teacher duo Erika Rice and Geoff Wickersham were recently selected to be part of the Albert H. Small Normandy Institute program, which offers an intensive program for approximately 15 student-teacher teams to learn and deepen their understanding of the WWII D-Day Campaign of 1944 and the sacrifices made by young Americans to defeat tyranny.

Since last December, when they learned they had been selected for the 2023 program, Rice and Wickersham have been intensely studying and researching WWII materials as well as choosing a local WWII soldier to research and honor.

This summer they will travel to George Washington University in Washington D.C. for a series of extensive lectures and activities, then will visit historical sites in France that played vital roles in the D-Day Campaign and the liberation of Paris. Since students will stay with other students and teachers with other teachers, it also provides Rice and Wickersham with the chance to connect with contemporaries who share their passion for history.

Wickersham, a longtime history teacher, explains, “When I saw this opportunity, I knew it would be great for the right student. I had Erika as a student in AP U.S. History and Women’s History classes. She has an insatiable knowledge and passion for history. She is amazingly articulate and bright, and I knew she could handle the different types of high-level research required for the program.”

As a capstone project, each team selects a soldier with ties to their local area who participated in the Normandy Campaign and gave their life to help liberate France and defeat Nazi Germany. They learn about the service member’s life and write a biography and eulogy, which will become part of the cemetery’s archives. Rice will read the eulogy at their soldier’s graveside in the Normandy American Cemetery at Colleville-Sur-Mer. About 500 Michigan soldiers are buried at the cemetery.

With assistance from the Birmingham Historical Society, Wickersham and Rice selected Lieutenant Carlton Thompson as their hometown hero. According to Rice, Thompson was born in Jamaica and moved to Birmingham as a young child, where his parents ran a general store. He died in France during a reconnaissance mission when his plane crashed and he was ambushed. Amazingly, Wickersham and Rice were able to locate and meet surviving family members who helped them more fully understand him as a person. To add extra meaning to the experience, one of Lt. Thompson’s relatives may be joining them at the cemetery for the reading of his eulogy.

“This work is an important and lasting way to personalize and honor the sacrifice of all who gave their lives to help liberate Europe from fascism,” Wickersham said.

Rice is looking forward to experiencing history come alive during the trip. “Being there and experiencing the history of it all and standing at the beach where it all happened will be super impactful. It will also be special to work in the archives in D.C. and do the work of a real historian.”

Wickersham puts the study of history in context: “It’s important for everyone to know history and how our government works – some types of ignorance are borderline dangerous. History sometimes echos and has similar patterns that we can learn from.”

After high school, Rice plans to study history and multimedia journalism in college, hoping to one day make history documentaries. The Bloomfield Hills junior’s desire to continue her studies in history is not a surprise. “It’s my passion. My dad fostered my love of history and my parents have always encouraged me.

“It’s important to learn about history such as D-Day invasion and Operation Overlord [the codename for the Battle of Normandy] in depth so it doesn’t happen again.”

Story: Tracy Donohue

Photo: Laurie Tennent


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