GVSU staff, students launch WWII podcast series

By Tylee Bush | 9/17/17 9:15pm

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GVL / Courtesy - Bernadine Carey - Tucker / gvsu.edu The initial episodes of "To the Letter" spotlight a correspondence of letters between a member of the U.S. Army 26th Infantry Division and his sweetheart during World War II.

Grand Valley State University staff and students are bringing history back to life with the release of a new podcast series, “To the Letter: A Podcast From Grand Valley State University Special Collections and University Archives.” 

These podcasts will be reading and re-enacting the letter exchange between a Detroit native soldier, Joseph Olexa, and his Grand Rapids sweetheart, Agnes Van Der Weide, that took place during World War II. 

Olexa served in the U.S. Army, fighting in the Invasion of Normandy, the liberation of Belgium, the Battle of Hürtgen Forest and the Battle of the Bulge. Throughout his time serving, he sent a collection of letters back home to Van Der Weide. 

These letters were donated to GVSU's Special Collections and University Archives in 2015 by a family member, and they are now being given new life through this podcast series.

Leigh Rupinski, archivist for public services and community engagement at GVSU, is the brains behind this new podcast series. Rupinski promotes collections through social media and encourages faculty members to integrate historical resources into their courses, and she was the first to consider turning the love letters into a podcast.

“I have been working with many wonderful people, including my co-host Jackie Rander," Rupinski said. "We’ve also collaborated with Len O’Kelly and his communications students to produce the show, including Logan Church who is voicing Joe for us." 

The podcasts will involve some history, but they will mostly consist of the word-for-word reading of Olexa and Van Der Weide’s letters.

“The idea is to engage people with historical sources in a new way and make them come alive,” Rupinski said. “I loved the idea of sharing their story because they really exemplify ordinary people, both of whom were local, caught up in an extraordinary time.”

Rupinski hopes people will connect and relate to history in a way they haven’t before.

“I really want these letters to feel accessible to people who are interested in history or relationships between people but don’t necessarily want to read a textbook,” she said.

The personality in this podcast is what Rupinski thinks will make it the most interesting. 

“One of my favorite pieces of this collection is Agnes’ letters," she said. "We don’t have as many of hers, but lots of them are signed with a lipstick kiss."

Jackie Rander, GVSU library publishing services manager and Laker alumna, is Rupinski’s cohost for the podcast. 

“I was initially nervous about doing this project, but after recording a few times, Leigh and I have a lot of fun while still learning a lot about Joe and Agnes’ story and what was happening during WWII,” Rander said.

Rander enjoys how this podcast gives a new and personal perspective to a historical event. 

“I think this podcast is interesting because it mixes history with a personal story of a couple living during WWII,” she said. “You’ll learn a little about what was happening during that time period but also get a great story about a couple being introduced through a letter and then it becoming a relationship.”

To follow this podcast, visit www.gvsuspecialcollections.wordpress.com or subscribe through iTunes.

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