History Master’s Thesis Archived in Truman Presidential Library

   Members of the Korean War Veterans Association, Inc. pose in the Liberals Arts Building on campus.
Korean War veterans’ oral histories, curated by graduate student Michael Lane, are part of the history preserved in the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum.

Michael Lane ’16/’18 has made the “Forgotten War” a bit more memorable.

Lane’s history master’s thesis, a collection of oral histories of veterans that served during the Korean War (1950-1953), was accepted for archival in the prestigious Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum in Independence, MO.

A history buff since childhood, Lane’s interest in the Korean War stems from his uncle’s service, while his interest in oral histories stems from his exposure to ethnographies in the anthropology program at SUNY Brockport.

“For me, the human elements within history are the most appealing,” said Lane. “I want to know how people lived in the past.”

Lane, who earned a Bachelor of Science in Anthropology and History in 2016 and a Master of Arts in History in 2018, will earn his third degree from the College this December: an MSEd in Social Studies Education that will prepare him to teach grades 5 through 12.

It wasn’t until Lane became an anthropology tutor in the Academic Success Center (ASC) that he knew he’d discovered his calling as an educator.

“Watching students grow and evolve as learners is the most gratifying thing that I can imagine experiencing in a career,” said Lane.

The Making of His Masterpiece

While Lane’s thesis concept was a product of his belief in the importance of preserving the legacies of those less heard, tracking down those voices proved to be a challenge. He nearly scrapped the concept to take a different approach — until he was able to get in touch with the president of the local chapter of the Korean War Veterans Association, Inc. (KWVA).

From there, he met eight veterans during an Honor Flight return at the Greater Rochester International Airport, who became his interviewees. While many of the veterans were at first skeptical of his intentions, he said he gained their confidence by demonstrating his respect for their service. Now, he attends KWVA meetings each month and has developed close relationships with the veterans and their families.

“One of the key moments during my thesis involved the realization that, to honor these men and women, I had to abandon the purely historical analytical aspect of a master’s thesis and incorporate the human agency that each of these individuals exhibited during the war and after,” said Lane. “My interviewees had widely different experiences, recollections, and understandings of the war.”

In comparing the stories he collected to historiographies from other historians, Lane discovered differences.

“Much of the dialogue concerning the Korean War portrays brave men and women as fighting communism and going to war with little hesitation,” said Lane.

His findings inferred that their choices to serve tended to be based on more personal reasons, which is why Lane and his thesis advisor, Professor of History James Spiller, found that approaching the project “through the lens of citizenship” most realistically depicted the veterans’ experiences.

“Michael Lane did something no other student has done,” said Assistant Director of ASC Tutoring Elisabeth Gonzalez, who worked with Lane in the ASC. “He spent hours building trust, recording narratives, and researching a population that has often been forgotten.”

Leaving a Legacy

The Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum was the first of 14 presidential libraries to be created by the federal government under the 1955 Presidential Libraries Act. The act ensures important papers, books, and other historical materials are made available to the public, all within spaces that lend themselves to research and exhibition.

While Lane feels it is “slightly surreal” to have his work archived in a national record-keeping system, he prefers to reserve the honor for the veterans. He said many of them were “taken aback” that their stories would live on in perpetuity.

“The veterans each served for various reasons, but none of them saw their experiences as unique or worth documenting. Now they do,” said Lane. “I feel honored to have had the opportunity to enter their lives, collect their stories, and be a caretaker of their legacy.”

As part of his thesis project, Lane hosted a veterans discussion panel on campus, during which members of both KWVA and the College’s Reserve Officer Training Corps batallion presented to students, faculty, and staff.

“Michael’s help in bringing these veterans to campus meant that his thesis research has had a broader educational reach, since dozens of students in the audience attested to me how moved they were to hear from the Korean War veterans and how much they appreciated learning about this dramatic part of their nation’s history,” said Spiller.

Lane’s pursuit to preserving these legacies has extended beyond the bounds of upstate New York. Over the summer, Lane traveled to New York City to meet more veterans and collect their oral histories. After his December graduation, Lane plans to enter a history PhD program and someday teach in a local high school. His ultimate goal is to build the next generation of independent-thinkers and social activists.

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Author: Anna Loria

Posted: September 13, 2019