The Institute on World War II and the Human Experience at The Florida State University is serious about the importance of its vast collection of World War II materials. Yet, there was no shortage of smiles at a March 12 ceremony when NBC News special correspondent and author Tom Brokaw honored World War II veterans Harold Baumgarten of Jacksonville Beach, Fla., and Samuel Gibbons of Tampa, Fla. At the event, Brokaw announced the creation of an endowed fund in their names through a personal gift of $100,000 to the institute.
Brokaw then surprised Baumgarten, Gibbons and the rest of the audience at Florida State’s Alumni Ballroom with the announcement that an additional $100,000 matching gift from the GE Foundation was expected, as well as a gift from Florida State, potentially bringing the initial endowment up to $300,000.
"This is very gratifying because Florida State has done a wonderful job in collecting the materials from the World War II veterans from all over the country," Brokaw said. "Collections like this should be stored at institutions like Florida State where everything is well organized and students and researchers have access to it. It’s important for people to have a sense of what we went through. People were so eager to put World War II behind them and get on with their lives, it kind of got lost in the backwater a little bit. Now young people, baby boomers and others look at this collection and they say things like, ‘Oh my God, I had no idea my grandparents went through that.’ And, especially during these difficult times, there are some pretty important lessons that can be learned from those materials."
In 1998, Brokaw’s best-selling book, The Greatest Generation, encouraged thousands of World War II veterans and civilians to share their memories of the war era. His office was flooded with letters, memoirs and photographs. He used many of these in his subsequent books, but soon realized that the collection needed a permanent home where it could be properly preserved and used by future generations. Brokaw learned of The Institute on World War II and the Human Experience at Florida State, which now houses The Tom Brokaw Collection. Brokaw also serves as the national honorary chairperson of the academic advisory board for the institute.
Directed by William Oldson, Florida State professor of history, the institute is the nation’s largest non-federally funded archive of World War II memorabilia and information housed in a public institution. The institute’s collection is available for educational purposes, research and public interest.
"Almost everything the institute collects is one of a kind," said T.K. Wetherell, president of Florida State. "They are collecting things that can’t be replaced. This generation of World War II veterans is passing at an alarming rate. When they’re gone, the only way we will have to remember their experiences will be by having their oral histories, letters, documents and memorabilia that the institute is doing such a good job of preserving. It makes the textbooks come alive when students see items and hear the voices of people who served during World War II in all capacities."