Wood River High School ninth-grader Matt Schell has been named the first winner of the Idaho Mountain Express Generational Conversations Contest.
The Express offered a challenge to teachers at Wood River High School in October, asking them to assign a 600-word profile article of a local senior citizen.
Forty-five students from English teacher Stacy Smith’s classes answered the call, and 10 of their stories were published in the Local Life section of the paper, from Oct. 31 through Jan. 2.
Students’ subjects included a meat cutter in the Magic Valley, a veteran of the Vietnam War who remembers being spit on in an airport, a miner who grew up in Idaho Falls and a former spy for the Army during World War II.
Kristen Kaiser, Idaho Mountain Express’s graphic designer and organizer of this year’s contest, said the goal was to help students connect with senior citizens in the valley and learn from a previous generation’s experiences.
Kaiser said that when she was growing up, she didn’t really connect with her elders—something she now regrets.
“I figured there was no way I could connect with them, so I didn't bother,” she said. “I feel that that is a widely held belief with Americans in the past 50 years. I wanted, through writing, to bridge that divide.”
Schell said he didn’t expect to win the contest.
“It was a little bit of a surprise,” he said. “I knew I would probably be in the paper, but I didn’t think I would win.”
Schell was chosen as this year’s winner after submitting a story about his grandmother, Penny Schell, who was a young mother during the Vietnam War.
Schell wrote about his grandmother’s experiences of the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, her first car—a 1956 Chevy Bel-Air with fins—and witnessing the evolution of the telephone from a party-line system to the modern cell phone.
“She’s had an interesting history,” Schell said.
He added that one of the most interesting parts of the story was listening to his grandmother tell about her brother, who was on a Navy ship during the Vietnam War, and how the family did not learn his fate for days after the ship was bombed.
Schell will intern at the Idaho Mountain Express during the week of March 25, spending time with each department to learn how a newspaper comes together.
Schell said that though he isn’t sure he wants to be a reporter in the future—he’s more interested in engineering or mechanics, he said—he is interested to see how reporters work on a deadline and how the paper is printed.
Smith said in an email that she was happy Schell was this year’s winner.
“Matt will honor this internship opportunity,” she said. “He is a fantastic and energetic young man.”
The Express plans to broaden the scope of the contest next year, inviting students from other high schools and classes in the valley to compete.
All the entries can be viewed in unedited form at http://mtexpress.com/essays.
Kate Wutz: email@example.com
Telephones, Vietnam and JFK
Penny Schell reflects on a tumultuous six decades
By Matt Schell-Wood River High School Freshman
Penny Sue Schell was born Penny Sue Thomas in Boise on Nov. 14, 1948. Though her great-great-grandparents hailed from Germany and Ireland, Schell was raised in Rupert, the second-born child of five.
Schell said her family was poor growing up, and she began working when she was 12 to buy her own clothing and shoes. She said she has never stopped working; currently, she’s manager of the Minidoka County Senior Center in Rupert and also volunteers to help with the community’s elderly residents.
Schell was a freshman in high school in 1963 when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. She said she still remembers that she was between her third- and fourth-period classes when the shocking news was announced.
“I was sad,” she said. “[Kennedy] was so young, and an astounding president who was doing great things for our nation.”
Schell added that the loss of Kennedy was a great loss to the United States.
Schell graduated from Minidoka County High School, informally known as Minico, in 1967. Her first car was a 1956 Chevy Bel-Air with tall fins on the back, and she said she had planned to go to beauty school to be a hair stylist. But her plans changed when she attended beauty school; she spent four months there, but dropped out because she realized she didn’t like it.
Schell said that if she could go back and change this part of her life, she would—but she would not go back to beauty school.
“I would study harder and get my accounting degree,” she said.
Schell married Butch Schell of Rupert at age 19, and had her first child at 20. She now has four children and 11 grandchildren, and said most of them live within 200 miles of her home.
Schell was a young mother when the Vietnam War began. Her husband had left the military just as the war was about to begin, but seven of her high school classmates who were drafted into the service shortly after the war began were killed in action.
Schell’s older brother, George Eugene Thomas, served in the Navy during the Vietnam War. Schell’s father had also served in the Navy. Thomas was on a destroyer that was bombed, and Schell said the family had to wait for days for news.
“All we knew was that his ship had been bombed and men had died,” she said. “We didn’t know what happened until several days later. It’s not like today, where the families know right away. It was days before we knew if Eugene had been hurt or killed.”
Schell said the news stations couldn’t get out information very quickly and sometimes didn’t relay what was going on at all. She said that when she found out that her brother’s ship had been bombed, she felt “really sick to my stomach and scared.”
Three men from the destroyer had died, but not Thomas.
Schell said the country was in turmoil, times were difficult and riots were happening all over the place. She said that when the veterans would return home from the war, they were considered by some to be a disgrace to America and were shown little respect for having served their country.
Schell has traveled to Japan, Indonesia and Malaysia as well as most of the 50 United States. She said her most enjoyable experience was traveling to Hawaii with her mother and brothers and sisters about 15 years ago.
When asked what one of the biggest changes she has witnessed in her life was, she said “the telephone.” When Schell was growing up, she used a party-line telephone, on which five families shared the same line and the operator placed all calls; now, there are cell phones that work off towers and fit in a pocket.
Schell said the hardest thing she has had to endure in her life was her fight against cancer. She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 1994, and is one of a very few who have lived to say they beat the disease.
Schell said she has a short bucket list: to travel to Russia, to return to Hawaii, to go on a cruise, to take a train through the Canadian wilderness and to learn to swim.
She said she has been afraid of the water for her entire life, partly because she never learned how to swim.
“I would like to be one of those little old ladies in the pool, wrinkles and all, in my purple suit and red hat, just swimming,” she said with a laugh.
Schell said her advice to younger generations was simple: live life to the fullest.
“Don’t just exist, but really live every day,” she said. “You never know how much time you might have left.”