COLUMBIA CITY — After months of coursework, lectures and research, Liam Hesting and Kristin Rentschler’s involvement with the seventh group of the Normandy: Sacrifice for Freedom, Albert H. Small Student and Teacher Institute came to a head when they were able to travel to Normandy, France.

In January, Hesting and Rentschler were accepted into the institute along with 14 other student/teacher teams from across the nation, based on application essays. The project began with six months of coursework, most of which was entirely on the Normandy invasion and “all the information that surrounds that,” Rentschler said.

Rentschler is a social studies teacher at Columbia City High School, and Hesting is a senior at CCHS this year.

During those six months, Hesting, Rentschler and the 14 teams were part of an online class, reading and discussing their weekly assignments.

In June the pair went to Washington, D.C., and took classes for a week at George Washington University. Now, they’ve created a website and are giving presentations on their experience.

The student/teacher teams spent five days in Washington, D.C., attending lectures by area professors as well as an individual from West Point in the mornings, and touring the U.S. capital after lunch.

“One day we did all the monuments and we went to the Smithsonian another day,” Hesting said.

In addition to learning in different environments, Hesting and Rentschler also had the opportunity to learn from their peers.

“For me, as a teacher, to find so many other people that are involved in National History Day – which is kind of what our trip was through – was really beneficial,” Rentschler said. “It was really beneficial for me just to have all those other teachers to brainstorm with. And I think for Liam, to be surrounded by 14 other kids who were really passionate about their education and were really intelligent kids, was great. The people we were with were all really smart and good at what they do.”

Alongside extensive research into the invasion of Normandy, the focal point of the project is finding a WWII silent hero from the student’s area, learning about their life and properly eulogizing them once in Normandy.

Joseph Martin Jordan, of Muncie, was the silent hero Hesting chose.

During research, Hesting and Rentschler orchestrated a phone call with Jordan’s 94-year-old widow in Florida, spoke with one of his great-nieces and “totally by accident,” they found his great-nephew.

“In trying to get some information from Muncie Public Library, we found one of his other relatives, who had all these letters and pictures. He just happened to work there,” Rentschler said. “When I was talking to the one librarian, she emailed me back and said, ‘Strange. Small world, my partner here at work is his great-nephew.’”

Part of the researching process is the connection students develop with their heroes through family, letters and pictures.

“Students become well acquainted with their silent heroes, often referring to them as a friend or family member,” National History Day Executive Director Cathy Gorn said.

And Hesting “definitely” became attached to Jordan.

“The biggest takeaway, I would say, is probably that he’s a lot like me, or a lot of kids that are in high school now,” Hesting said. “He played basketball, played sports and all that stuff. Basically, he was a normal high-schooler, and it was kind of weird to see that. When he died he was 22, so not that much older than me or any of my friends.”

As Hesting’s and Rentschler’s work was coming together for the eulogy, they set off on the final leg of their trip to France.

“I had been to Normandy before, but never to this extent,” Rentschler said.

Before the eulogies, the group toured Omaha and Utah beaches, museums, sites of historic battles and churches that were used as field hospitals.

Rentschler and Hesting shared their favorite parts of France, Rentschler’s being Pointe du Hoc, which is “on top of this cliff where we had some American Rangers that had to scale the cliff.” The part that most impacted Rentschler was the German bunkers that were still at Pointe du Hoc.

“To be able to go and climb around in the German bunkers and look down on where Americans were trying to land and come up from — for me, that was a pretty cool moment,” Rentschler said.

Hesting’s favorite part of the France tour was a town called Sainte-Mere-Eglise, where the American paratroopers dropped in. Jordan, Hesting’s silent hero, was a paratrooper who dropped in the area.

“They had a big church in their town square and on the inside there’s a big stained-glass window. And the stained-glass window itself shows the American paratroopers dropping in on the town,” Hesting said. “It was really powerful to know they were that grateful.”

The tour of France concluded in the Normandy American Cemetery, where Hesting and the other students spent time preparing the crosses at their heroes’ graves and delivered their emotional eulogies.

“He’s Joe. He’s our guy – he’s the guy we learned had a sweet tooth so bad he lost a couple of teeth while he was in Europe because he had eaten so many sweets. You know, he was just a kid who, like all of those people, were asked to do something extraordinary,” Rentschler said. “We were just there to tell these stories.”

Hesting ended his trip with his life impacted in many ways.

He is “grateful to have been able to go to a whole different continent,” and travel while he’s young, he said. He is happy to have experienced what it is like to research at a higher level and attend lectures at the university.

“It’s really a blessing to have been able to go over there and do a project like that. I think it gave me a whole new perspective on life — that you shouldn’t take anything for granted,” Hesting said.

“If I could convey one message to anyone about this, it’d be that there’s a lot of work to be done in terms of memorializing all the people who died during WWII. Because WWII veterans are starting to die faster and faster, so eventually, there’s not going to be any left,” Hesting said.

Many families of WWII combatants who died in France chose to have their sons buried in France. Most of the families never had the opportunity to go and formally give these heroes a sincere goodbye.

“I know for a fact Liam is the first person to give a eulogy at Joe’s graveside,” Rentschler said.

Sending students to honor heroes, say goodbye, learn their stories and keep their stories alive when they come home — that is what the institute is about.

Albert H. Small, who was in the military, has been successful in real estate and philanthropy. He pays for one group of teachers and students per year to embark on this journey with his institute.

“His vision is to have as many people go who can, but then he turns around and wants us to go and tell others. We can learn about Joe and learn about Normandy and tell 20 people, and then they tell 20 more people,” Rentschler said.

“So many Americans have forgotten, or we take for granted, what our men — and women, but mostly men — did when they went to liberate France,” Rentschler said. “But the French people of Normandy have not forgotten. It’s everywhere. It’s their memorials, the dedication; the appreciation is still everywhere so many years later. I think they haven’t forgotten what the Americans did, because they lived it.”

Hesting and Rentschler’s website memorial of Joseph M. Jordan can be found alongside the other memorial pages at NHDSilentHeroes.org.

They would “love to do presentations for anyone who wants to listen.” To set up a presentation with Rentschler and Hesting, email rentschlerke@wccsonline.com.

‘The life I live now is directly a product of what those men did’

Liam Hesting, CCHS student