Inside Spencer: The KSRL Blog

Dear Soldier

October 15th, 2021

In the fall of 2007, Air National Guard Sergeant William Leggett was doing his laundry. He was serving a third tour of duty in the Middle East, this time in Iraq. As he walked past a trash bin, he glanced into it and saw a large envelope addressed “To Any Soldier.” Never one to resist a possible trash treasure, he opened the envelope to find a packet of “Dear Soldier” letters, written by fifth- and sixth-grade students from Oil Hill Elementary School in El Dorado, Kansas.

Photograph of a uniformed soldier standing at a desk. The students are sitting in chairs facing him.
Sergeant Bill Leggett talking with students at Oil Hill Elementary School, 2008. Photo taken and provided by Kathy Lafferty. Click image to enlarge.

Sergeant Leggett was my brother, five years younger than me. From this point on I will call him Bill. Growing up together in Pennsylvania, he was the typical little brother. He chased me with Cicada shells from his bug collection, ditched me when we had chores, and announced on the school bus that I wore flowered underwear. On long car rides, he annoyed me by looking out of my window or breathing on me.

Nevertheless, we were close, despite our age difference. We made bike ramps out of old scrap wood our Dad had in his workshop, and we rode our bikes up and down our long driveway, trying to best each other’s jumps. I taught him how to make a bridge for his Tonka toys out of books and a rug, but he sometimes forgot the “trick” for getting the books to stay in place, so he asked me to show him again…and again…and again. We played baseball, taking turns pitching. On some of those long car rides, if I was feeling a little motherly and he didn’t smell too badly, I let him put his head on my lap to sleep (this was before seatbelts laws). He shared a bunk bed with our youngest brother, and many nights, after he had gone to bed, I heard him crying over something. We talked it out until he felt better, while I stood on tip toes on the bottom bunk. After I moved away, we wrote letters to each other throughout the rest of his childhood. I still have them.

Bill lived in Pennsylvania, with his family. He had been to Kansas to visit me a few times, and I saw him whenever I went to Pennsylvania. But we didn’t see each other, or have opportunities to talk, very often. He called me on my birthday and sang to me, badly on purpose. I wish I would have kept at least one of those voicemails. While he was in Iraq, we emailed each other almost every day. It was wonderful to talk again. He told me about the packet of letters he had found. I was excited to learn that the school was in Kansas, just off I-35, only two hours from my house.

He told me that he planned to hand-write letters to each student, individually. While I found it rather over the top that he would actually take the time to respond to each child, rather than just writing to the class as a whole or using email, I wasn’t surprised that he would do that. He told me that he felt the students deserved individual letters because THEY were the ones who had written individual letters in the first place, and it would be a shame if they each didn’t get a response. Besides, it gave him a project to pass the time.

Black-and-white scan of a handwritten letter. The border of the paper has pencils and schoolhouses.
Letter from fifth grader Megan D. to Bill Leggett, October 2007. Sergeant William J. Leggett Correspondence with Students of Oil Hill Elementary School. Call Number: RH MS 1525. Click image to enlarge.
Black-and-white scan of a handwritten letter. The paper's background is an American flag.
Letter from Bill Leggett to fifth grader Megan D., January 2008. Sergeant William J. Leggett Correspondence with Students of Oil Hill Elementary School. Call Number: RH MS 1525. Click image to enlarge.

So, for the rest of his tour of duty, he wrote to them, and they wrote back. He asked them to call him Bill. The students wrote of family members, pets, favorite sports, and things of childhood and school. They sent him artwork. They asked Bill questions about his life, what it was like to be in the military, and what his favorite things were. They closed by asking him to please write back. Bill wrote about his boys, Peanut Jelly the cat, and NASCAR. He described Iraq, its people, and the places he had been. He talked about life in the military, his job, and things like what food the soldiers ate. He wrote of what he missed back home. In each letter, he made sure to include encouragement. He reminded the students to do their best, to study hard, and to pursue their dreams. And he often included a smiley face when he signed off.

As the time to come back to the States got closer, Bill and I started talking about a visit to Kansas and the school. I contacted the teacher who had given the letter writing assignment about the possibility, and she took it from there. All we had to do was get him there. The visit was a surprise for the students, and it went beautifully. He hand-delivered his last letters, gave out some gifts he brought back from Iraq, held a question/answer session, played basketball with them at recess, and ate lunch with them. Students had their picture taken with him. He was presented with a school t-shirt and a flag that had been signed by the students and teachers. Bill was treated like royalty. When he left, there were hugs and tears, and promises to keep writing.

The students are in their mid-twenties today. They probably don’t know that Bill has passed. He died in 2020, in a work-related accident, just fifty-five years old. I hope they know, or someday know, that their letters are now the “Sergeant William J. Leggett Correspondence with Students of Oil Hill Elementary School, El Dorado, Kansas” collection, in Kenneth Spencer Research Library. When I asked Bill if I could make copies of the letters and donate them, he asked me why anyone would be interested in them. I explained that the best parts of the collections in Spencer are the personal stories that put history in context and make it real. He wasn’t convinced, but he let me do it anyway. He kept the originals because he wasn’t ready to part with them yet. I believe the letters meant as much to him as they did to the students.

Kathy Lafferty
Public Services

Throwback Thursday: Commencement Take Two Edition

May 20th, 2021

Each week we’ll be posting a photograph from University Archives that shows a scene from KU’s past. We’ve also scanned more than 34,800 images from KU’s University Archives and made them available online; be sure to check them out!

Rain, rain go away! We’re hoping for clear skies on Sunday for KU’s second weekend of Commencement ceremonies. Congratulations to the Classes of 2020 and 2021!

Photograph of KU graduates walking in Memorial Stadium for Commencement, 1933
KU graduates walking in Memorial Stadium for Commencement, 1933. University Archives Photos. Call Number: RG 0/17 1933 Prints: University General: Commencement (Photos). Click image to enlarge (redirect to Spencer’s digital collections).

Caitlin Klepper
Head of Public Services

Throwback Thursday: Commencement Edition, Part II

May 13th, 2021

Each week we’ll be posting a photograph from University Archives that shows a scene from KU’s past. We’ve also scanned more than 34,800 images from KU’s University Archives and made them available online; be sure to check them out!

Commencement for the class of 2021 is on Sunday, and we join others in congratulating all graduating Jayhawks and wishing them the very best. Rock Chalk!

Photograph of KU graduates walking into Robinson Gymnasium on Commencement Day, 1913
KU graduates walking into Robinson Gymnasium on Commencement Day, 1913. The structure once known as the Fowler Shops (present-day Stauffer-Flint Hall) is barely visible behind the trees on the left. University Archives Photos. Call Number: RG 0/17 1913 Prints: University General: Commencement (Photos). Click image to enlarge (redirect to Spencer’s digital collections).

Caitlin Klepper
Head of Public Services

Throwback Thursday: Study Spot Edition, Part II

May 6th, 2021

Each week we’ll be posting a photograph from University Archives that shows a scene from KU’s past. We’ve also scanned more than 34,800 images from KU’s University Archives and made them available online; be sure to check them out!

Good luck on finals next week, Jayhawks!

A black-and-white photograph of a male student sitting under an umbrella with a black dog.
A KU student studying on the grass, 1971. Lawrence Journal-World Photo Collection, University Archives Photos. Call Number: RG LJW 71/14 1971 Prints: Student Activities: Dogs (Photos). Click image to enlarge (redirect to Spencer’s digital collections).

Caitlin Klepper
Head of Public Services

Throwback Thursday: Junior Promenade Edition

April 22nd, 2021

Each week we’ll be posting a photograph from University Archives that shows a scene from KU’s past. We’ve also scanned more than 34,800 images from KU’s University Archives and made them available online; be sure to check them out!

"The First Junior Promenade, April 12, 1895" in the 1896 KU yearbook
Illustration, “The First Junior Promenade, April 12, 1895” in the 1896 KU yearbook, A Kwir Book. The event was what we would call a prom today; the word “prom” originated as a truncation of “promenade.” University Archives. Call Number: LD 2697 .J3 1896. Click image to enlarge.

The Lawrence Daily Gazette described the event in an article on April 13, 1895:

“To the class of ’96 of the State University belongs the credit of introducing into college circles of the west, that social function so famous in eastern colleges – the Junior promenade. The Fraternal Aid hall [in downtown Lawrence on the southeast corner of Eighth and Vermont streets] as the scene last evening of the pleasant college gathering…The hall was handsomely decorated with cut flowers and potted plants and the class colors, cream and crimson. The refreshments were served on the stage and the balcony was fitted up with tables for crokinole cards and checkers. Dancing was the order of the evening.”

Caitlin Klepper
Head of Public Services