The West De Pere History Society was formed by Domenic Gentile and his students sometime around 1964. Domenic taught history at West De Pere High School, and on the weekends, he was also an assistant trainer for Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers. Although named a “society,” it was probably more akin to a high school club, because it consisted entirely of students. In the wake of the unprecedented circumstances regarding the Kennedy assassination, students became curious about presidential secession law. With the wheels turning feverishly in their inquisitive minds, the society members began to meet after school; old projects, once completed, provided a pleasing sense of accomplishment and new ideas and curiosities evolved into exciting, new endeavors.
Gentile’s “history hounds” (as the Green Bay Press-Gazette once called them) wrote letters to potential informants requesting return correspondence, and sometimes, Gentile would reach out in person through his travels as the Packer’s Assistant Trainer.
The society’s collections focused on an assortment of newspapers, manuscripts, and original documents along with some small artifacts. Over time, the collection grew astoundingly large—so large, in fact, that they were in need of a permanent display and storage. Gentile must have realized the pure potential of this incredible compilation because he then decided what they were after was a Contemporary Literary Museum of American History within the very walls of the high school.
Without question, it would be excellent for a school to have a well-organized and well catalogued museum of historical artifacts, documents, and etc.”Robert C. Van Raalte
Wisconsin’s Assistant State Superintendant of Public Instruction
The idea would be for the museum to house the artifacts they collectively obtained as well as educate the student body on the scrupulous research and preserve the integrity of their finds.
Unquestionably, the most comprehensive component of the entire collection centered around the JFK assassination. Specifically, a compilation of letters pertaining to John F. Kennedy provided noteworthy answers and comments from: Sen. Ralph Yarborough, who rode in a car behind Kennedy; Jesse Curry, Dallas police chief; Gov. John Connally who was riding with the President while he was shot and he himself was seriously wounded; Mike Mansfield, Everett Dirksen, Nick McDonald, the patrolmen who arrested Lee Harvey Oswald; Earl G. Leinbach, Kennedy’s coach at Choate boarding school; Cardinal Cushing, who presided over JFK’s funeral; Dr. Kemp Clark, who pronounced the President dead; Father Oscar Huber, who gave him Last Rites; and Marguerite Oswald the mother of the assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. They even tracked down Capt. Yamashiro, commander of the destroyer which sank JFK’s PT-109 in World War II. The WDP History Society wrote letters to anyone who may have associated near JFK that particular day.
The Kennedy’s were also contacted, however, understandably, no response was ever garnered from the notable family.
Let me congratulate you on the unusual manner through which you have motivated your students, and the entire student body of West De Pere High School to become familiar with contemporary history. By having the students themselves contact personally those persons who are making history, and then displaying the results of these contacts that all might see, you have made the study of history a do-it yourself project with strong emotional appeal to all the senses. It is such novel approaches as this which prevents teaching methods from becoming routine and dull.”Dr. Raymond P. Clouthier
Associate Professor of Education
St Norbert College
The up and coming society also worked with Nazi artifacts. One of their projects was the arduous task of authenticating a personal copy of Hitler’s Mein Kampf (his autobiographical manifesto). The coveted book was found at Hitler’s summer home in Berchtesgaden when the Americans arrived and (from what I can tell) was temporarily loaned to the society. The students spent 5 months pouring over the project, and they wrote a total of 50 letters to the German Embassy and retired reform party leader Willy Brandt trying to authenticate the book’s origins. After some time, a letter from Dr. Mommsen, director of the federal archives in West Berlin, confirmed that the Mein Kampf book the students had researched all those months was, in fact, a personal possession of Hitler.
The students’ fascinating collection also included: a box of mementos from the Hiroshima bombing, a clever note from astronaut John Glenn, an autographed book and note from J. Edgar Hoover, a letter from the last living descendant of Christopher Columbus, and multiple presidential autographs.
Today, one might view these tremendous finds as historical artifacts, however, at the time, these interesting discoveries were considered a contemporary collection because the topics and people researched were of the recent past.
The growing enthusiasm amongst the students was infectious, and students were more engaged then than they had ever been before.
In 1969, Gentile left teaching to become the first full-time head trainer of the Green Bay Packers. Prior to that the school district seemed to indicate there would be space for the burgeoning collection in their upcoming new building. Perhaps due to budget or Domenic’s departure the plans never came to fruition.
After 31 years with the Packers, Gentile eventually retired at the end of the 1992 season. In that same year, the Professional Football Athletic Trainer Society honored both him and Kurt Fielding collectively as “Training Staff of the Year”. He was inducted into the Wisconsin Athletic Trainers Hall of Fame in Madison, the Wisconsin Hall of Fame in Eau Claire, the Lakeshore All-Sports Hall of Fame in Manitowoc, the North Dakota State University Hall of Fame, the National Athletic Trainers Association Hall of Fame, and the Hurley High School Sports Hall of Fame. In 1995, Domenic published his book, The Packer Tapes with Gary D’Amato.
Domenic was born in Hurley, Wisconsin 1 of 9 children. There he attended high school where he played football and basketball for the Hurley Midgets. He was all-state in both football and basketball, and president of his senior class. Gentile was a graduate of North Dakota State University where he was named to the all-conference football team. He coached numerous sports over the years and taught two years at Rudolph, two years at Chilton, and 11 years at West De Pere High School. His coaching record was 120-45.
Special thanks to West De Pere graduate Dawn Hoffman, without whom, this post wouldn’t be possible.
De Pere Historical Society Archives
Green Bay Press-Gazette Oct 12, 1945
Green Bay Press-Gazette Nov 12, 1948
Green Bay Press-Gazette Feb 13, 1966
Green Bay Press-Gazette Jan 3, 2000
Green Bay Press-Gazette Mar 15, 2006
The Packer Tapes by Domenic Gentile
I wonder if anyone ever considered the amount of radiation the Hiroshima items may have contained! Great article Mat.
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I wondered the exact same thing. The Hiroshima items were a roof tile and a piece of bamboo.
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Great article . .I was a librarian at the West DePere Library . .part of the Brown County system . .for two years . .such fond memories of that building and the community. . . .
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I loved that old library, the nooks, the crannies, and the smell of old books.
What ever happened to the collection of artifact’s? Are they still on display somewhere? Thanks.
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Great question! This is a lot speculation on my part but I believe the Gentile family retain some of it. Some of the objects in the newspaper clippings were loaned to the club (Mein Kampf for example) and I believe valuable items may have been auctioned off (the Oswald letter). If anyone out there has more information please feel free to correct me. I too, would like to know what is still out there.