FORT SCOTT — Singing the praises of an unsung hero turned into quite a shock for Gracie Conrad Monday.
Conrad, a junior attending Loup County High School in Taylor, Neb., was named the winner of the 2022 Lowell Milken Center Discovery Award during a special ceremony as part of the Fort Scott museum’s 15th anniversary celebration.
The fuss stems from Conrad’s 9-minute documentary on the heroism of Betty Goudsmit-Oudkerk during World War II.
Goudsmit-Oudkerk was a teen-aged daycare nurse who became a part of the Dutch Resistance. When Nazis began using the nursery as part of their deportation system for young Jews, Goudsmit-Oudkerk joined forces with a network of other workers and helped smuggle more than 600 children to safety.
Conrad worked for months on her documentary after reading about the young heroine.
The documentary, which can be viewed on YouTube, was the culmination of several interviews, reaching out to museums across The Netherlands for photos and other documents, and eventually getting in touch with Judith Goudsmit, Betty’s daughter. (Goudsmit-Oudkerk died in 2020).
“I started getting emotionally attached thinking about Betty and how she helped the world,” Conrad said. “I would cry thinking about it. I would cry doing voice-overs.”
Then came Monday, when Conrad cried once again. This time, with tears of joy.
After learning she was a semifinalist for the Discovery Award about a month ago, Conrad was invited to this week’s festivities in Fort Scott, a 7½-hour drive from central Nebraska.
She was accompanied by her mother and Megan Helberg, Conrad’s English teacher. Helberg had previously been recognized by the Milken Center as one of 24 Milken Fellow educators from across the country.
They attended Monday’s ceremony, expecting little more than to be a part of the pomp and circumstance of the anniversary celebration.
But as Norm Conard, the Milken Center’s chief executive officer and a former history teacher at Uniontown High School, introduced the special guests, he had an extra announcement for young Conrad, telling her she was the grand prize winner.
With the designation comes a $6,000 check.
“In true Milken fashion, they kept everything a surprise,” Hedberg laughed. (The announcement was supposed to come Thursday.)
But as much as she appreciated the recognition for her work, Conrad is just as quick to shift focus back on her subject.
“Betty’s endless impact on the world is to be brave, even when you are terrified,” Conrad said at the conclusion of her documentary. “The world today needs more kind hearts that are willing to lend a hand just to help, and expect nothing in return.”
OPENED in 2007, the Milken Center’s subjects share a single trait: all are folks from various walks of life who took actions to improve the lives of others, often at great personal risk.
The exhibits include a large display honoring Irena Sendler, a Polish nurse who, like Goudsmit-Oudkerk, helped smuggle thousands of Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II.
Between 1942 and 1943, Sendler was able to rescue 2,500 children, saving a list of their real names and storing them in jars buried in her garden.
Sendler eventually was captured by the Nazis and sentenced to death. She escaped by bribing a prison guard for her release, and went into hiding for the rest of the war.
Sendler’s story became known to the world largely through “Life In a Jar,” a History Day project developed by a group of Uniontown High students in 2000 under Conard’s supervision.
That project, a short skit performed by the students, took on added significance after the students learned Sendler was still alive and living in Poland.
They visited Sendler in 2001.
The episode caught the eye of Milken, chairman of the Milken Family Foundation, which eventually led to the museum’s genesis.
The museum has since become a crown jewel in Fort Scott’s historic downtown business district.
THIS WEEK’S anniversary celebration included the unveiling of the museum’s latest addition, a picturesque walking park to the south of the complex at the intersection of Main and Wall streets.
The park provides a community space where visitors to the museum and Fort Scott residents alike can enjoy the tranquil scenery, learn about the Unsung Heroes profiled in the story rails, and gather for community programs and activities in partnership with other businesses in the downtown area.
On hand for the ribbon-cutting was Lowell Milken, global philanthropist and namesake for the museum and walking park.
“A center for Unsung Heroes could only have been borne out of a community that deeply values history, excellence and education,” Milken said in a news release. “Fifteen years later we can all take pride in knowing that educators, communities and students experience the powerful combination that can occur when history merged with project-based learning leads to the discovery of change-makers.”
“As we enter this new era, the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes continues to stand as a testament to the power of Unsung Heroes to change the world through project-based learning,” Conard said in a statement.
THE CELEBRATION included other Unsung Heroes, such as Carl Wilkens, a missionary and pastor who became the only American to stay in Rwanda during the country’s horrific genocide in 1994, as well as family members of Chester Nez, one of World War II’s “First 29” Navajo Code Talkers, Andrew Jackson Higgins, who invited the Higgins Boats used during amphibious landings during World War II, and Gene Schomaker, a pioneer in astrogeology and the only person whose ashes are buried on the moon.
Wilkens spoke about the importance of project-based learning and how it leads young students to take greater appreciation for their education.
“It’s where you get to choose the topic, and you get to take ownership,” he said. “You’re telling the story, sometimes, literally to everybody.”
Wilkens admitted to knowing little about the Milken Center until arriving in Fort Scott for the celebration. “Only when I began to walk around and see the stories did I begin to appreciate what’s going on here.”