History nerds and turning points

Stephen Frese in 2006 and 2023

This column by Daniel G. Clark about Alexander Clark (1826-1891) first appeared in the Muscatine Journal on Dec. 13, 2023.

My previous column told of the high-school junior whose 2006 biographical essay on civil-rights hero Alexander Clark won him a full-tuition university scholarship, the top prize in the National History Day competition.

To find out what became of Iowa’s prodigy, I sought help from Naomi Peuse who had been the NHD coordinator at the State Historical Society at the time.

“Stephen Frese, the history nerd,” he called himself back then.

Saying she had not been in touch with him in the intervening years, she quickly pointed me to a picture on the website of his alma mater, Marshalltown High School, where he is now a teacher—of science.

The photo shows the grin I remember, only now it shines through a huge, amazing beard. That’s how I described it when I reached Stephen via e-mail.

“I did attend Case Western Reserve University on my scholarship from National History Day,” he replied. But he did not major in history.

“I did take some history courses while I attended CWRU. However, unlike the work that I did with my projects in National History Day, I felt the constraints of the courses limited what and how well I could do on a project. At that point I chose to pursue another passion of mine: chemistry.”

“I graduated in 2011 from CWRU with a degree in Chemistry and then went immediately into the Masters program at Drake University. After completing that program in 2013, I took a position at my hometown high school teaching college credit and college prep chemistry and physics courses. I have been teaching here since!”

“And I have been nurturing my beard for several years—it has become the distinguishing feature that students use to describe me!”

Are you all about science now, I asked, or do you still encourage kids to become history nerds?

“I still consider myself a ‘history nerd.’ I really enjoy the process of researching and drawing conclusions about past events in order to develop both a rational, coherent worldview as well as show how important historical events influence current events and shape the world as we know it.”

“When I teach chemistry or physics I try to instill the importance of the skills to students, but I do it through the lens of the scientific pursuit for the course. I am fortunate to work with many teachers who were part of my educational journey. The mentor teacher at MHS for the extracurricular learning opportunities is the same one that worked with me. Whenever there are students who need some guidance for National History Day projects, I usually get a call from her asking if I would be willing to help!”

National History Day was founded in 1974 by Dr. David Van Tassel on the campus of Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. Hence the grand-prize scholarship.

Stephen competed six times. “I earned silver my first year at the National Competition, then for the next four years I won gold. My last gold medal was earned for my paper about Alexander Clark, and along with that I was awarded the scholarship to CWRU.”

(“I am not aware of another student with so many medals back to back,” Naomi Peuse told me.)

For its 50th anniversary, the 2024 National History Day theme is “Turning Points in History.” Contest materials describe turning point as “an idea, event, or action that caused change, either directly or indirectly.”

I discuss turning points with a middle-schooler who chose Susan Clark integrating public education in Iowa for her NHD project. It’s her first experience, and she hasn’t decided how far up the line she wants to compete.

Stephen’s advice:

Competitions like NHD are extremely beneficial for students and mentors today! Knowing about how and why historical events happened or escalated (toward good or bad outcomes), and how those events impact the current socio-political landscape here and abroad! The perspective that students and mentors can gain from looking into the past, especially the historical events that shaped the particular state they live in, can be more beneficial than just the outcomes from the contest. That perspective allows them to more meaningfully join the discussions that will truly impact the future.

I resist the temptation to omit some exclamation marks.

The Cedar Rapids Gazette, July 3, 2023: “Overall, Iowa sent 62 students from 18 different schools to the national contest this year. The 62 students emerged from a total of 498 competitors in the National History Day in Iowa contest held earlier this year….”

Learn more at the National History Day page on the State Historical Society’s website.

I asked the current Iowa NHD coordinator, Hanna Howard, if she knows about Stephen. “His name is legendary around here,” she said.

“From Emancipation to Equality: Alexander Clark’s Stand for Civil Rights in Iowa” by Stephen Frese was published in Iowa Heritage Illustrated in 2010. It’s online here.

Next time: Cascading through history!

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