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Friday, 09 December 2016 10:48

Williams Bay students explore tradition, serve community in popular history club

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Williams Bay High School History Club adviser Deb Soplanda, left, directs student club members during a recent work session at Frost Park in the village. The park, named for a 20th century Yerkes Observatory astronomer and physicist, was brought back to life by club members, who continue to maintain it. Williams Bay High School History Club adviser Deb Soplanda, left, directs student club members during a recent work session at Frost Park in the village. The park, named for a 20th century Yerkes Observatory astronomer and physicist, was brought back to life by club members, who continue to maintain it. Terry Mayer

WALWORTH COUNTY SUNDAY -- Members of the Williams Bay High School History Club don’t just study the past. They mine it to bring old traditions into the present. In some cases, they even use it to create a piece of the future.

Take, for example, one of the club’s biggest projects -- Frost Park. The slice of land at Congress and Geneva streets was created by the Williams Bay Garden Club in 1935 to honor Edwin B. Frost, a physicist and astronomer who worked at Yerkes Observatory in the early 20th century. It was designed with astronomical symbolism, including a moon garden. But more than 70 years later, the park had slid into neglect.  

History club members decided to resurrect Frost Park. In November 2010, they researched its history, discovering that Franz A. Aust, the landscape architectural firm that had been commissioned to oversee the park’s construction, was, like Frank Lloyd Wright, one of the pioneers of prairie design. Members uncovered original schematic drawings and turned to Shawn Kelly, a local resident landscape architect and University of Wisconsin-Madison professor, for help in restoration.

They sought out the Wisconsin Department of Transportation for approval of vehicle safety zones, and in 2011, got approval for a park proposal they presented to the Williams Bay Parks & Lakefront Commission.

Students held fundraisers and encouraged community participation in the renovation work. Since the park’s re-inception, they’ve maintained the land in the summer, watering plants, weeding, even constructing trellises as a backdrop for morning glories they tend. Each fall, they plant bulbs and cover tender perennials.

“I think Frost Park is one of the most gratifying things,” said Nick Robison, a senior at Williams Bay High School and the history club’s current president. “Five or six years ago, there was just this empty lot with dead grass. Now it’s this beautiful garden with flowers and a stone walkway. We just painted the trellises.”

“That first group of students is very pleased that this is something they created. They can bring their kids to it and say, ‘Dad made this,’” said Deb Soplanda, the club’s adviser.

Soplanda said residents who see students working in the park often stop and thank them for their efforts. Sometimes, someone will drop off a bucket of chicken and sodas. Students are surprised -- and pleased -- at the recognition. Soplanda knows area residents are surprised, too.

“The public has a very ill-conceived notion of teenagers,” she said. “Fortunately we can show a different aspect of them.”

A 20-year veteran teacher at Williams Bay High School, Soplanda said the club started with six students in 2000 as a way to officially sponsor school trips to Europe. The trips are still a draw, but the club’s mission has evolved to include more activities, from geocaching to jewelry making.

Currently, the club has 118 members. It’s the biggest club in a school with a student population of 165. Membership spans athletes, computer wizards and the academically minded.

A monthly meeting in November drew dozens of students to the auditorium during their lunch hour. During the meeting, committee leaders took turns on stage, updating members on projects, including an appeal for donations to the annual community food drive.

“History club allows you to be a part of something bigger than yourself,” said Erin Bailey, the club’s vice president. “It also allows you to be a leader and we have all types of leaders here -- quiet ones and outspoken ones.”

Members are required to participate in two work experiences, which can cover anything from volunteering for concession sales -- which are the club’s fundraisers -- at school events to donating items for the food drive.

“We make it easy for them, but it’s good for them to understand how important volunteering is,” Soplanda said, adding that many members also are involved in church groups or organizations like the Scouts that emphasize volunteering.

Members are no slouches when it comes to academics, either. The Williams Bay High School History Club has been Wisconsin State History Bowl champions in 2012, 2014 and 2016. They’ve been champs at the United States Geography Olympiad, done well in the National History Bee and have had several students named to the National History Scholar Society.

They were the first Wisconsin history club to be asked to join the National History Club. Current students Derek Spolarich and Derek Wautlet received the 2015-’16 History Student of the Year award. And Soplanda was named one of the NHC advisers of the year in 2016.

A founding member of the Williams Bay Historical Society, Soplanda initially was surprised by the club’s growth, but she believes its success is due to its student-driven agenda of activities that are tied to history.

“They’re the ones making the decisions,” she said. “Generally, if they come up with an idea and want to pursue it, let’s do it. They’ve got a great handle on what works and what doesn’t.”

Club activities have included an open-to-the-public treasure hunt with literary connections, an overnight program on the USS Cobia World War II submarine, a Medieval Times dinner theater and programs for Veterans Day and 9-11. The club is even discussing creating a historical photo exhibit of Williams Bay.

There have even been some surprising passions, like tea. Members have researched not only the history of the beverage (tea leaves were once used as currency in some cultures) but the origin of afternoon tea ceremonies (created by the hunger pangs of Anna Russell, Duchess of Bedford) and even tea etiquette (“Milk is served with tea, not cream. Cream is too heavy and masks the taste of the tea.”). A committee is considering offering four formal afternoon tea ceremonies a year.

“We like the idea of setting aside a time of day when you sit down and drink tea no matter what,” said Reese Amstutz, tea committee chairman. “We wanted to re-create that because it’s a really relaxing experience.”

“I think it’s so popular because of the socializing aspect,” Soplanda said. “They set a beautiful table with delicious food and just chat about anything and everything.

“But we’ve got a group of guys that just love having teas. It blows my mind. (Principal William) White was giving a tour one day and he popped in with two gentlemen and here’s the football team, their jerseys on, sitting there holding their tea cups. They said, ‘Would you like to join us for tea?’ because they were trying to be polite. And the expression on those three guys’ faces!”

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