It took more than a month for telegrams about the casualties from D-Day to arrive in the small town of Bedford, Va., during World War II.
This was one of many facts a group of sophomores at Chapel Hill High School learned interviewing soldiers' families after they studied the book "The Bedford Boys" by Alex Kershaw.
"When we first started, it was an academic exercise," Honors English II teacher Tom Stanfa said. "It inspired some students to see if their great-grandfathers served in World War II."
But Stanfa was "stunned at the great job" the students did making a DVD documentary about the project. He especially praised Harrison Esterly, a student who directed the documentary this past summer, before it was first shown in Hanes Auditorium last fall.
"By putting students in touch with veterans and taking them to battle sites, we made history come alive," Stanfa said.
For leading students from literature to field research to making documentaries, Stanfa has been awarded Teacher of the Year in local, district and state competition by the Veterans of Foreign Wars. He is now competing for the national honor.
Stanfa's students produced the documentary in collaboration with an Advanced Placement History class and a Web Design and Audio Engineering class, as part of Chapel Hill High's new Academy of Information Technology.
Students visited Bedford to see the National D-Day Memorial in fall of 2010, and a group traveled to Normandy during spring break last year to study the site of the D-Day invasion.
In Bedford, Garcian D'Cruz, now a junior, saw the state was not funding maintenance of the memorial. Through a new youth group, the Columbian Squires at St. Thomas More Catholic Church, he raised $1,500 for its upkeep.
The contribution led to an invitation to the 10th anniversary ceremony for the memorial, at which D'Cruz and Stanfa gave speeches.
"It's a fantastic class," D'Cruz said of Stanfa. "Not only have I learned the fundamentals, I have learned to relate to the characters. He's one of the best teachers I've ever had."
Stanfa said "The Bedford Boys" was recommended by Bill Melega, who teaches the A.P. history class as part of the AOIT program. Melega won the VFW's national high school teacher of the year award in 2010.
Stanfa's work with students, teachers and the community is "awesome," Principal Jesse Dingle said. "We are extremely proud of him and all that he has accomplished."
Stanfa plans to teach the "The Bedford Boys," about the heavy D-Day losses in that community, again next year and return to Europe to follow the path of the soldiers.
This year, the AOIT program is focusing on piracy in the Caribbean during colonial times. Students are reading "Empire of Blue Water" by Stephan Talty, the story of pirate Captain Henry Morgan.
The class has already visited the N.C. Maritime Museum in Beaufort "to give a feel for areas in North Carolina that dealt with piracy" and is working on an interactive web page, Stanfa said.
The year after next, students will study a work from the Vietnam War.
During a recent class, Stanfa and his students examined introductory chapters to "Nectar in a Sieve" by Kamala Markandaya.
Set around 1760 in India, the book gave students a chance to discuss the caste system, while drawing informative comments from two students in the class with families in India.
His lecture style was smooth and informal, seamlessly moving back and forth from presentation to question and answer, while raising a few eyebrows as he noted the low divorce rate among arranged marriages in India.
As part of the information technology emphasis in his class, Stanfa said they plan to use the book as the basis for an interactive web page to raise money to fight world hunger.
Stanfa earned his undergraduate degree at Northern Illinois University, and obtained his graduate teaching certification work at Xavier University. For the Teacher of the Year Award, he was sponsored by the C.V. Cummings Chapel Hill Post 9100 of the VFW. He also is faculty adviser for the yearbook at CHHS.
Stanfa has taught at CHHS for 12 years after moving here from his native Illinois.
"Once I got used to the heat, I loved being in town," he said. "It kills me when kids say they have nothing to do in Chapel Hill."