Students Help Museum Collect Cold War History

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 12, 2006

Fairfax County students have launched a partnership with the organizers of the Cold War Museum and will conduct interviews for an oral history project to help preserve personal recollections of events such as the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban missile crisis.

The South County Secondary School students will begin work Saturday during a conference at the high school to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1956 Polish and Hungarian uprisings against the Soviet Union and Communism. David Eisenhower, a grandson of former president Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Sergei Khrushchev, son of former Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, are among the guests scheduled to attend.

Patti Winch, South County's social studies department chair, said working with the museum is an opportunity for students to learn vivid lessons as they preserve Cold War history for others.

"Kids get more meaning out of history if they walk in the footsteps, and they can best do that if they talk to the people who did the walking," Winch said. "It's hard for our students today to understand the Cold War. I don't think they connect with the fear factor."

Conceived by Francis Gary Powers Jr., the museum, which is awaiting final approval from the Fairfax County Park Authority, is planned for a site at the former Lorton prison and would sit above a onetime Nike missile base .

Powers dedicated himself to the project in memory of his father, Francis Gary Powers, who was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960 while flying a U-2 spy plane. The elder Powers parachuted to safety but was captured and imprisoned. In February 1962, he was returned to the United States in exchange for a high-ranking Soviet agent. He died in 1977 when a TV traffic helicopter he was piloting crashed.

After the Fairfax site emerged a few years ago as a possible home for the museum, the younger Powers approached Fairfax school officials. Powers said that he had come across many young people familiar with U-2 only as a rock band and that he wanted to involve students in the museum.

"The whole point of the Cold War Museum was to educate future generations in what that time period was all about," Powers said.

South County Secondary, on the former Lorton prison site and about a mile from the proposed museum location, was a perfect fit. Principal Dale Rumberger is on the museum's board of directors.

Winch said she attended an October 2005 board meeting and listened as members talked about how history was being lost as people who lived in the early years of the Cold War were dying. The board wrestled with ways to preserve individual stories.

"We came up with the idea that the kids could do it," Winch said. "We want the students to have a connection."

Some details remain classified, Powers said, but stories can still be told. "The Cold War was often clandestine, . . . but you can talk about civil defense and duck-and-cover drills," he said. "It's not just our spies from the CIA. It's people who lived and worked during this era -- military, government contractors, families."

Some students designed a T-shirt and save-the-date card for Saturday's conference, and others will help with registration. Winch said teams of high and middle school students will record recollections of participants and guests.

The students will conduct mini-interviews during the conference and invite people who live nearby to the school for a more detailed interview, Winch said, which will give students more time to research and prepare questions.

Interviews of people who live abroad or out of the area will be conducted during the weekend with a teacher's help, Winch said. In the future, the museum and school plan to work together to conduct more interviews, she said.

"My vision is if Gary [Powers] finds someone coming into town who is a Cold War veteran, they'll set up an appointment to come to South County," Winch said.

The museum also runs a traveling exhibit. Powers said he hopes the permanent Lorton facility will open in 2008.

The conference at South County Secondary School, 8501 Silverbrook Rd., in Lorton is open to the public and begins at 9 a.m. Saturday. The museum is bringing in 300 Fairfax students, most from South County, and social studies teachers at no cost. For others, there is a $40 fee for adults and $15 for students. Register at

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