Unearthed School Assignment Offers First Person Account of World War II Era America

Meg Biallas, 8 years old, 1996.

Meg Biallas, 8 years old in 1996, when she was in the Third Grade. One reading assignment that year was to interview an older relative about what their life was like when they were 8 years old and in the Third Grade.

Last week, when doing the autumn version of spring cleaning, I came across several bins of collected memorabilia for my daughter, Meg. Now 28 years old, she’s  lived and worked far from home, in Washington, D.C., since she graduated from college six years ago.

Clearly she won’t be returning home to live here again, so it was time to pack up those boxes and ship them off to her on the east coast.

Those boxes contain everything from baby booties to ballet slippers, and play programs to sorority certificates.

They also contain a few papers Meg produced each school year from pre-school through her high school graduation. I saved them so she could look back at them decades later for a glimpse at what her life was like in the formative years of her childhood.

Apparently, my desire to be the family historian was pretty strong 28 years ago—well before I began seriously pursuing genealogy professionally. I must have innately known though, that at least a few of those treasures collected over the years would prove to be telling about her own family history.

Today, with Meg’s permission, I share a very special assignment she did in the Third Grade in which she interviewed a much beloved uncle—Terry Vaughan—about his life in the Third Grade at the dawn of World War II. I also received permission to run it on this blog from Terry’s wife—my sister, Dorothy Vaughan—who was married to Terry for 45 years before God took him back home 8 years ago.

Terry Vaughan, 62 years old in 1993--three years before Meg interviewed him for her 3rd grade writing assignment.

Terry Vaughan, 62 years old in 1993–three years before Meg interviewed him about his life in Third Grade in 1939 when he was 8 years old.

Due to her pending school deadline, Terry faxed his responses to Meg which came out on that waxy gray paper that fax machines used two decades ago.

Alarmingly, I noted last week that the words on that paper had considerably faded over the past 20 years. Thus, in an effort to save Terry’s words before they literally disappear, I’m transcribing his answers to her questions on GeneaJourneys today.

Meg’s assignment back in 1996, was to interview an older relative about what their life was like in the Third Grade. I imagine the teacher had many goals beyond encouraging her 8-year old students to read, write and produce a report.

Perhaps, it was to practice their penmanship, communicate with an elder, LISTEN to an elder talk about their life experiences at the same age, or learn about and share some (relatively) recent history.

Whatever the original goals of that assignment were, a genuine “Thank You” to Miss Maloney of Maercker School in Westmont, Illinois, who assigned it to the class back then. Without that assignment, Terry’s memories would never have been captured to share with others again.

But while it may have been Meg’s homework,  it’s really Terry’s story, which he so generously shared with her two decades ago. So together, Terry, Meg, Dorothy and I now share his memories with GeneaJourneys readers.

And, oh…I must add this…

Today, September 25, 2016, is Terry’s 85th birthday.

So, “Happy Birthday” in heaven, Uncle Terry. And thanks so much for sharing these memories with your niece so long ago—memories of your 8th year on this earth, when you were in the Third Grade—a time for you of boyhood innocence when the nation was on the brink of World War II.

Meg’s email to her Uncle Terry

Date: 9/29/1996

To: TDV31@abc.xyz (65 years old)

From: mgbiallas@def.xyz (8 years old)

Subj: Third Grade Life in the Past

Dear Aunt Dorothy & Uncle Terry:

Hi! How was Uncle Terry’s birthday? Did you have a good celebration? We are all fine here. Today, Kelly (Meg’s 7 year old sister), Barbara (a  friend), and I were playing on the porch and set up our own little town with a beauty parlor, doctor’s office and pet shop. It was fun.

I am writing you because in reading class we are learning about how it was in old school days. I would like to know what your school days were like when you were in Third Grade. Some things I’d like you to tell me about are:

  1. What year were you in the Third Grade?
  2. What were your subjects?
  3. What was your favorite subject?
  4. How did you get to school?
  5. What was your teacher’s name (if you can remember)
  6. Where did you go to school?
  7. Was it in a city or in the country?
  8. How many kids were in your class?
  9. Were you all in the same grade level?
  10. What did you carry your books in? (I use a backpack.)
  11. Did you eat lunch at school? What did you like to bring for lunch?
  12. Did you do any after school activities like scouts or clubs?
  13. Did you have homework? What kind? How much? Was it hard?
  14. What did children wear to school? (jeans? dresses? uniforms? )
  15. Do you have a favorite story from Third Grade you can tell me about?
  16. Is there anything else you can tell me about when you were in Third Grade?

Please answer my questions as soon as you can. You can save postage and email me at mgbiallas@def.xyz. Thanks for helping me with my homework. I can’t wait to get your email so I can bring it to school.

Love, Meghan

P.S. (We already called Aunt Diane once for some help with some Third Grade story problems—Mom couldn’t figure them out. That’s why I’m writing to you.)

P.P.S. (from Mom): Meg’s first attempt on this assignment was to great-grandma Biallas who will be 90 on October 10. We think she forgot about it, or misplaced it, or just didn’t understand what Meg wanted. Therefore we figured we’d try the Desmond side of the family. Any response would be welcome from T., D. or both of you, as they’re already rolling in from M’s fellow classmates. Thanks!


Meg’s response from her Uncle Terry:

DATE:           October 8, 1996

TO:                Meghan Biallas

FROM:          Terry Vaughan

SUBJECT:     Third Grade Life in the Past—More than you want to know!

What year were you in the Third Grade?  September 1939 till June 1940.

What were your subjects?  Reading, Handwriting, Arithmetic, Geography, History, Religion and English. We were learning to do Times Tables and Long Division as well as continuing to practice addition and subtraction in Arithmetic.

Times Tables: The bane of every 3rd grader's school day since time immemorial.

Times Tables: The bane of every Third Grader’s school day since time immemorial.

We also read aloud in Reading class. We had to practice our handwriting to conform to the model letters that were displayed above the blackboard. We used lined paper that had faint lines between the heavy lines to help us learn to do the shapes properly.

What was your favorite subject?  Geography and Recess. Do you see any connection between those two activities?

How did you get to school?  I walked to school, a little less than 1 mile each way. I went home for lunch, so that means I walked a minimum of almost 4 miles to and from school each day.

What was your teacher’s name? My teacher’s name was Sister Mary Bridgett, S.S.J. I’ll always remember her. I do today, even though it has been 56 years. She seemed old to me, but she was probably not as old as I am now, which is 65. She was strict, but sensible and kind.

The original St. Augustine Catholic Church and Rectory (c.1907) located on Michigan Avenue, Kalamazoo, Michigan. St. Augustine high school was built at this location in 1926 and the grade school a bit later, about 10 years before Terry attended 3rd grade there.

The original St. Augustine Catholic Church and Rectory (c.1907) located on Michigan Avenue, Kalamazoo, Michigan. St. Augustine High School was built at this location in 1926 and the grade school a bit later, about 10 years before Terry attended Third Grade there.

Where did you go to school?  I attended St. Augustine’s Catholic School.

Was it in a city or in the country?  The school was in Kalamazoo Michigan, which is located half way between Detroit, Michigan and Chicago, Illinois. The population was about 50,000 people.

The area was noted at the time for Upjohn, a large world class pharmaceutical company; many paper manufacturing companies; and the Shakespeare Tackle Company, the world’s largest fishing rod manufacturer which was located about four blocks from our school.

The Michigan Central and New York Central Railroads shared the rails that formed the northern border of our school playground. So, every train, which went from Detroit to Chicago and Chicago to Detroit, went past our school. There was lots of train traffic every day during school. We got so we didn’t even notice them.

Trains were always a passion of Terry’s–a passion perhaps acquired as a child on the school playground when he’d hear and see the trains go by.

All the trains were steam driven, so there was lots of smoke, mostly black. I liked the odor. My favorite trains were the switch engines that put the trains together, one car at a time, until they made up a whole train.

Sometimes I would quit playing and just watch the engineer work his switch engine. Sometimes I would wave at him and he would wave back to me.

I also liked watching the fireman on the train, shovel coal into the firebox which heated the water to make the steam that powered the locomotive.

I knew that my father’s father had been a fireman on the Michigan Central many years before I was born. Maybe my interest in trains grew from that knowledge. Unfortunately, I never met my grandfather on my father’ side because he was one of the many thousands who died during the worldwide Flu Pandemic in 1918. My father was only 10 years old when his father died.

How many kids were in your class?  There were about 30 students in my class.

Were you all in the same grade level?  We were all in the same grade—the Third—but we did begin to exchange 1 or 2 classes that year for the first time in my experience.  I liked doing that.


Meghan Biallas with a new backpack on her first day of Third grade, August 28, 1996.

What did you carry your books in? (I use a backpack.)  We carried our books, notebooks and papers in our arms. Book bags were not very common. Most people could not afford them.

A student who used a book bag would probably be considered odd and one who was trying to impress the teachers, or act like a “brain.” It would not make him or her popular. A girl could probably get by doing so, but a boy would certainly have been scorned by his classmates. So there was some social pressure not to use one.

Did you eat lunch at school? What did you like to bring for lunch?  We did not have a lunch room. Students who could not get home for lunch and back in time for school, had to have special written permission to stay for lunch. Usually, they lived on a farm. They ate their lunch at their desk. We envied them because as soon as they were done eating, they could go out on the playground.

Meanwhile, we were running home, eating quickly, and running back to school to have an opportunity to play on the playground before the lunch hour was over. We only had one hour for lunch, from noon until 1 p.m. It was barely enough time for some of us.

My grandparents—my mother’s father and mother—lived with us. My parents both had to work. Most mothers did not work outside the home but money was tight so my mother had to work. If my grandparents had not been available to care for me while my mother worked, I doubt she would have done so. My parents would have just made the best they could of the situation.

Vintage ad for Prince Albert tobacco.

Vintage ad for Prince Albert tobacco.

My grandfather was severely disabled and deaf from an industrial accident. I always looked forward to greeting him when I came home from school. I would always give him a little hug and shout my greetings in his ear. He always welcomed me and had a smile.

He read a lot and smoked Prince Albert, a brand of pipe tobacco, in his pipe. My grandmother always had a warm meal for me at lunch. She was a great woman and I loved her very much. So, there were some real compensations for coming home for lunch which no playground could match.

Did you do any after school activities like scouts or clubs?  There were very few opportunities for organized activities after school in those days. There were few Boy Scout Troops, even fewer Cub Scout dens, and hardly any Girl Scout or Campfire Girl groups. There were no troop activities available to me. I didn’t know anyone in any of the organizations noted above.

Little League was unknown. We had never heard of soccer. Basketball hoops could only be seen in a gym. But we often played softball in the street or at a playground at a public school near my house. Few youngsters had a football because they were very expensive. I also became interested in model airplanes. A high school boy a few doors away made them and he showed me how to construct them.


Radio was instrumental during World War II in getting war news out to Americans.

We also read a lot and, while doing dishes, we would  listen to the radio. The War was on in Europe and China, and we were eager to hear the news about it. It was during the Big Band Era, so there was always lots of pleasant energizing swing, jazz and dance music on the radio.

Perhaps your parents can find some examples at the library so you can hear it. I’ve got some and can share it with you when you visit.


Louis Armstrong, one of America’s greats, during the Big Band Era.


“Captain Midnight” was one of Terry’s favorite radio shows he listened to when he was a boy.

There were also very popular comedy shows and radio dramas, some of special interest to youngsters, such as Jack Armstrong: the All American Boy; Captain Midnight;  The Lone Ranger; Sergeant Preston of the Yukon; and others.

Henry Aldrich, about a high school boy and his friends, was one of my favorites. We also enjoyed most of the same entertainment programs our parents liked.

Did you have homework? What kind? How much? Was it hard?  Yes, we had homework, every night and every weekend!  We usually had homework in every subject, sometimes even in Handwriting. We could count on having 1 or 2 hours of homework every night; and even more on weekends.

I enjoyed Geography. I did not like Arithmetic, especially doing Times Tables and Long Division, and I found Diagramming sentences difficult. My mother had been a teacher for two years before she was married and she helped me. Those were not always pleasant sessions since I simply didn’t like homework, even though I knew I had to do it.

What did kids wear to school? (jeans? dresses? uniforms?)  Girls had to wear uniforms consisting of plaid skirts and white blouses. Boys had to wear black or brown plain laced shoes, dark colored pants and a plain shirt.

Terry and his male classmates wore knickers like these to school in 3rd grade. Once America entered World War II though, material shortages meant there was less cloth available for those baggy trousers and boys began wearing straight legged pants to school as they required less material than knickers.

Terry and his male classmates wore knickers like these to school in Third Grade. Once America entered World War II though, material shortages meant there was less cloth available for those baggy trousers. That’s when boys began wearing straight-legged pants to school. They required less material than knickers did.

I almost always wore dark grey, black or brown knickers made of corduroy. They were a bit baggy, came to just below the knees, and had an elastic band around the bottom of each leg so they fit snugly around the top of my calf.

They made a noise, a kind of “swish-swish” as I walked, when the inner sides of each pant leg rubbed against each other. I liked to hear it.

Even though we were not yet directly involved in World War II when I was in Third grade, America was supplying lots of materials to England and the Soviet Union (now called Russia) because we hoped that by doing so we might avoid becoming involved. However, such aid caused shortages here, and goods were becoming scarce in this country.

When shortages of material developed as the war went on, knickers went out of fashion since they required more material than straight legged pants. I wore long, knee high stockings, usually plaid, that tucked under the elastic band at the bottom of each pant leg.

There was never a question, doubt or concern about what you were going to wear to school the next day: you knew.


Terry’s dad took a new job with Borden’s Ice Cream Company in 1939. It’s unknown if employees received discounts on those ice cream products. If so, it must have been a little boy’s dream!

Do you have a favorite story from Third Grade you can tell me about? 

There are probably many stories I can tell you about my times in the Third Grade. The first one which comes to mind goes as follows:

I was new to the school because we had just moved to Kalamazoo from Jackson, Michigan because my father took a new job with the Borden Ice Cream Company.

As the “new kid”, I was only slowly accepted into the group at school. You may have had a similar experience when you were new to a group.

One day I was finally allowed to play in one of the informal games of football on the playground. Someone threw the ball to me and I started running for the goal line. Immediately I realized I would be tackled if I went for the goal line I was running toward. Therefore, I simply turned around and ran to the other one.

Everybody was screaming at me!

Although I tried, I couldn’t understand them because of all the shouting. I proudly took the ball successfully over the goal line. Only then was I rudely informed that I was some kind of dummy because I ran to the wrong goal line.

When I told my father about it, he had to laugh, but when he saw how humiliated I was, he comforted me and gave me some lessons in how to play football.

Just one of a host of World War II posters produced by the government to encourage morale in those on the home front while their sons, fathers and sweethearts fought in battles abroad.

Just one of a host of World War II posters produced by the government to boost morale on the home front.

Is there anything else you can tell me about when you were in Third Grade?  Third Grade was a time of innocence for me as I am sure it is for you now.

I enjoyed that time, although it was both hard and worrisome since, although we weren’t  in the War yet, nearly everyone was concerned that we would be soon.

Just a year and a half later, the Japanese made their sneak attack on our fleet at Pearl Harbor, sinking and badly damaging many  U.S. ships, and destroying many of our planes–killing  thousands of our soldiers, sailors and Marines. We were in the war for sure by then.

Meanwhile, it seemed hard because we were short of money, as were many people. As the war unfolded, it got worse. Nevertheless, we never thought of ourselves as “poor”.

That’s all that mattered.



Meg Biallas and her uncle, Terry Vaughan, in June 2006.

In 2007, ten years after Terry helped Meg out with her Third Grade reading assignment, Meg interviewed Terry again. This time she was 18 years old and a college freshman. Terry, was 75 years old and retired.

That assignment was for Meg’s introductory class in Electronic Media. Topics included both traditional media–radio, movies, and TV; and rapidly evolving newer media–the internet, cell phones, and a voice activated software program Terry used at the time on his home computer.

Terry passed away in 2008.

In 2010 Meg graduated from Butler University, Indianapolis, Indiana, with degrees in Journalism and  Video Production.

She currently serves as the Senior Director of Digital Communications for First Focus in Washington, D.C., a non-partisan organization committed to making children and families a priority in federal decision making and budgeting.


 Copyright © 2016 Patricia Desmond Biallas

This entry was posted in American History, Biographies, Family Legends, Family Stories, Photo Stories, Social History. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Unearthed School Assignment Offers First Person Account of World War II Era America

  1. esc1252@comcast.net says:

    This is excellent. I always love hearing WWII stories from my mom and what my grandparents did during that time and even during the depression.


  2. Lorene Cook says:

    Another first rate article Pat, and one that made me cry. Terry never failed to go all in. His answers to Meg’s questions demonstrate his interest in knowledge and learning. He made sure to relate his responses to her in an engaging and thoughtful manner. At the same time, he shared things that he liked and felt…the sound made by the knickers swishing…the satisfaction of a hot meal at lunch…how much he loved his grandmother. I miss him. Happy birthday Terry. Thanks for the memories.

  3. Thanks, Lorene. Yes, TDV was one of a kind. I miss him, too. I think we all do…

  4. Karen McHenry says:

    Wonderful article! What a nice man.

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