As a sophomore in college, Andrew Carroll faced a defining moment in life.
A house fire, which destroyed his family home in Washington D.C., taught Carroll how items, held dear and valued, could be gone in an instant.
Pieces of history - including letters written by a close friend living in Beijing in 1989 during the Tiananmen Square riots - along with missives from his parents and grandparents, were destroyed.
For a student, already passionate about history, the fire left an indelible mark on Carroll's life - and caused the young man to develop a passion for collecting the written word of soldiers from a multitude of conflicts.
This week, Carroll will be in Grove, as part of the Paper the Town with Art celebration, sponsored by volunteers with the Grove Springs Cultural District.
As part of his visit, Carroll will speak to community groups, including the Grove Rotary Club and with students at Grove High School, concerning his effort to preserve history.
He will also meet with the public, during two separate events, as part of his Million Letters Campaign - to collect a million letters for the Center for American War Letters at Chapman University in Orange, California.
Those sessions will take place from 7:30 to 9 p.m., Tuesday, Sept. 12, at the Grove Public Library, 1140 NEO Loop, Grove, and from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 16, at the Grove Community Center, 104 West Third, Grove.
More about Carroll
Carroll's collection of letters - which has since grown into the Center for American War Letters at Chapman University - began when a distant family member, James Carroll Jordan, sent him a letter he had written about his experiences of walking into Buchenwald concentration camp in Weimar, Germany in April 1945 as Allied forces liberated prisoners at the facility.
The letter, written by the young pilot, details the atrocities he saw, and what he learned about the Nazis.
"It was powerful reading," Carroll said, adding when he offered to send the letter back, his family member said to keep it, he most likely would have thrown it away otherwise.
The Legacy Project
That letter led Carroll to begin "The Legacy Project", in order to collect letters from American service men and women, written home during times of conflict.
"I thought we were losing the history of this country," Carroll said.
For Veterans Day, 1998, Carroll wrote to Dear Abby, asking her to "help spread the word" among her readership about a desire to collect war letters.
"In honor of Veterans Day, I want to tell you about a young man on a mission to remember our nation's veterans in a unique and meaningful way – by preserving their old letters," Abigail Van Buren (the pen name for Pauline Friedman Phillips) wrote in her column published on Nov. 11, 1998 by Andrews McMeel Universal.
"Andy Carroll is the founder of The Legacy Project, an all-volunteer, national effort that promotes a greater appreciation for letters and the art of letter-writing," she continued. "Andy is now working with the Veterans Administration, museums and archives around the country to encourage Americans to search through their homes for historically significant war letters.
"These may include eyewitness accounts of battles or acts of heroism, encounters with famous military leaders, love letters, or any other irreplaceable messages or little-known stories that will offer historians and future generations a better understanding of those who served and sacrificed for our country."
The column went on to promote how people could reach Carroll by mail, to submit letters for the project.
"We were inundated," Carroll said, in response the Dear Abby column. "War letters came in from all over the country. Thousands came in."
The request for letters soon became a documentary with both the History Channel and PBS, as well as a book Carroll wrote using the donated letters.
They also became part of a play, which will debut in Grove on Friday, "If All The Sky Were Paper," as part of the 2017 Playmakers of Grove season.
To date, Carroll has published more than 100,000 previously unpublished letters - and emails - from every war in U.S. history.
Carroll's collection was donated free of charge to Chapman University to become "The Center for American War Letters."
The center, of which Carroll is the founding director and presidential fellow, is designed to "collect, preserve and promote extraordinary war-related correspondences so that this generation and those to come will better understand the sacrifices and experiences of US troops, veterans and their loved ones."
The play, Carroll said, is comprised of a collection of letters, written by a variety of members of the U.S. Military, including some from the American Revolution, the Civil War, both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
"The narrator anchors the performance," Carroll said. "He serves as the everyman, taking the [playgoers] through the travels filled with history. It's a personal journey."
During the visit to Grove, Carroll hopes to meet with veterans, or their loved ones, to collect additional letters for the center.
Each letter, be it a copy or an original, is digitized and preserved within the center's collection. Letters may be viewed online at www.warletters.us.
Carroll calls his efforts as a way to "barnstorm" the country, collecting letters and visiting with veterans.
People who present original letters are given a certificate of appreciation for their donations.
"The time when someone shares letters, that's the most incredible part of the trip," Carroll said. "That's when I get to interact with people. We honor and value the letters."
Carroll said by donating the letters people help ensure historians and scholars will have access to pieces of American history.
Visiting the schools
During stops at public schools - including his time at Grove High School - Carroll likes to find ways to bring history to life, rather than something that is abstract and impersonal.
He said he often tells students to think about the service men and women, as being very close to their age - or even their ages now, especially if the veteran lied about his/her age to enter into conflict.
One letter he often shares with students was written by a 14-year-old drummer from the Civil War. Another, found in the "football" of original letters Carroll carries, shows a bullet hole, in the "dead center" of it - as the letter writer was shot, after completing the note.
Another letter he likes to highlight was written by a sailor on a ship in the middle of Pearl Harbor.
"This brings history to life because it's the human side of history," Carroll said, adding he also hopes it helps students think about collecting their own thoughts for history.
Carroll's visit to Grove is one of the smallest venues he has picked for this "barnstorming" tour. It is also one of the only places for where he plans to spend multiple days talking with various groups.
"I hope people bring out their letters," Carroll said. "They don't have to be original. They can be photocopies or scans. But I hope we get a lot of originals to keep safe forever."
Carroll said several families, who donated letters during his previous trips to Houston, contacted him, grateful to know the letters were safe.
"Giving us the originals helps us to preserve and archive - and cherish every letter," Carroll said, adding the letters will be saved for generations to come.
One of Carroll's favorite letters, was written in 1929 when he was ill, was a love letter to Micheline Resco, a Parisian artist he loved.
Carroll said Persing gave the letter to his son, to be given to Micheline upon his death.
"It was one of the most beautiful love letters I've ever read," Carroll said. "It was pure poetry."
Carroll said the letter, found among Micheline's papers, is part of his personal collection. It will also be part of the collection Carroll brings to Grove.
"This is not just a job," Carroll said. "This is my passion - something I love."