November 10, 2012

Bill Nemitz: Teen keeps WWII veterans' memories alive

Morgan Rielly of Westbrook tells soldiers' stories in his book 'Neighborhood Heroes: Life Lessons Learned from Maine's Greatest Generation.'

What do we make of a kid like Morgan Rielly?

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Bill Currier, left, shares a laugh with Westbrook High School junior Morgan Rielly, right, at Rielly’s house last Monday. Rielly interviewed Currier, along with other veterans, for a book he wrote titled “Neighborhood Heroes: Life Lessons Learned from Maine’s Greatest Generation.”

Photos by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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“This all has more meaning to me than it did, say, when we were bringing up families and kids and trying to establish a career and all of those things,” says Bill Currier, a Navy veteran of World War II who earned eight battle stars as a radarman 1st class.

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He's 16 years old, president of his junior class at Westbrook High School, an honors student, plays soccer and tennis, and is active in too many other clubs and activities to list here.

But that's not what sets him apart from his young peers on this Veterans Day.

"I have always had, as long as I can remember, a really passionate love for history," Morgan said last week.

As he spoke, three World War II veterans -- Phil Curran, Arthur Currier and his brother, Bill Currier -- sat around the Rielly family's dining room table.

All three men are from Westbrook. All three are fast approaching 90. And all three are still pleasantly surprised that anyone, let alone a kid who only this month got his driver's license, would want to write a book about them.

It's called "Neighborhood Heroes: Life Lessons Learned from Maine's Greatest Generation." And for those who worry that world-shaping events of another time seem lost on a generation that considers yesterday's Facebook postings old news, it's a welcome homage to the past by a kid with a very bright future.

"There's an old African proverb, 'When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground,' " Morgan said. "I felt like I needed to get this done soon. Not to rush it and do a poor job, but I needed to get as many veterans as possible."

His sense of urgency was justified -- of the 26 Maine veterans Rielly profiled in his book, at least four have since passed away.

"We're a dying breed, truthfully speaking," noted Arthur Currier, 87, who was but a year or two older than Rielly when he enlisted in the Navy in early 1943 and went on to earn 12 battle stars as a fire control technician 3rd class aboard the destroyer USS Connor. "We're at the end of it -- the end of the life cycle for most of us. And it's kind of nice that people still remember."

It all began when Rielly, at the age of 5, saw a neighbor missing half an arm walk by one day.

He asked his father, Brendan Rielly, what had happened to the old man. His father replied that their neighbor, John Malick, had lost his arm fighting on Guam in World War II.

"What was World War II?" Morgan persisted.

Fast forward to the summer before eighth grade, when Morgan spent a rainy day glued to his couch watching the 10-part HBO miniseries "Band of Brothers" from start to finish.

The up-close-and-personal portrayal of the 101st Airborne's Easy Company, based on the book of the same title by historian Stephen Ambrose, "really caught my attention," Morgan recalled. "I was obsessed by it. I read Stephen Ambrose book after Stephen Ambrose book."

The following spring, still just in eighth grade, Morgan enrolled in an online high-school history course.

Assigned to interview a World War II veteran, he chose Loring Hart, the retired president of Saint Joseph's College of Maine in Standish, who was a radio operator with the Army's famed 4th Armored Division. (Hart died just last month at the age of 88.)

The rest, is, well, history.

"I didn't want to wait until after college and graduate school to become a historian," said Morgan, who's now shopping his hefty manuscript to local and regional publishers. "I wanted to be a historian now."

Imagine the faces down at the American Legion Manchester Post 62 in Westbrook the day the teenage boy walked in with his notebook and recorder and quietly began asking every World War II vet in sight if he could interview them and then tell the world their story.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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From each of his subjects, Morgan Rielly distilled a theme – and ultimately a chapter title – to encapsulate what each veteran learned from the war.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer


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