When a Wayland history teacher stumbled onto the papers of a deceased West Roxbury war veteran, he assigned his students to write the mystery man’s biography. What they found was Boston’s version of Forrest Gump.
Kevin Delaney had seen the old, gray briefcase in the Wayland High School history department’s storage room before. The case, one of those sturdy plastic Samsonite types from the ’70s, had been around so long, neither Delaney nor any of his colleagues knew how it had arrived there.
It was the spring of 2011, and Wayland High was preparing to relocate to a newly constructed facility. It fell to Delaney, Wayland’s history chair, to decide which of his department’s materials would make the move. And so he unfastened the lid and began to page through the yellowing papers contained inside.
“I had actually seen it before and given it a peek, and I knew there was something intriguing. But I’d never dumped the contents out and given it a scrub down,” Delaney remembers. “So I put them on the table, started to pore through them, and didn’t take long to figure out that they were all linked.”
Inside were the assorted papers—letters, military records, photos—left behind by a man named Martin W. Joyce, a long-since deceased West Roxbury resident who began his military career as an infantryman in World War I and ended it as commanding officer of the liberated Dachau concentration camp. Delaney could have contacted a university or a librarian and handed the trove of primary sources over to a researcher skilled in sorting through this kind of thing. Instead, he applied for a grant, and asked an archivist to come teach his students how to handle fragile historical materials. Then, for the next two years, he and his 11th grade American history students read through the documents, organized and uploaded them to the web, and wrote the biography of a man whom history nearly forgot, but who nonetheless witnessed a great deal of it.