The excitement on Monday morning in Room 122 of Swift Creek Middle School in Chesterfield County stemmed from the revelations surrounding a long-lost valise belonging to Crewe native and World War II U.S. Navy veteran Leonard Daniel Kelley. History on occasion provides lyrical flourishes; Kelley and Florence Powell of Blackstone married when in their 40s and did not become parents. But since 2019, several classes of seventh graders turned history sleuths — under the guidance of teacher Pam Rockenbach Plahs, leader of the school’s social studies department — became intent on finding the facts in the case of Seaman Kelley. All this happened at a school that is the home of the Sailors.
At the beginning of this month, Delle Curry received a letter at her and her husband’s home in New Bern, North Carolina. The query, handwritten in careful print by Hailey Rowe, Grace Black and Alex Gonzalez, told a story: “We are seventh grade students attending Swift Creek Middle School. … We have gotten possession of a suitcase that belongs to your uncle, Leonard D. Kelley. For the past three years many students have been working on trying to find information about the suitcase, including finding family members. After going through many documents and records we have found you. We have lots of items from the suitcase including a key, badges and even his uniform. We are interested in talking to you to gather information about Mr. Kelley and some items in the suitcase.” They gave the contact information for their teacher and closed with, “We thank you for your time and we hope you have a wonderful day!”
Delle Curry, self-possessed during a press event at the school despite the presence of television cameras and a room full of young students with their questions, eagerly described her reaction. “We were so surprised and excited,” she said. “That you’ve done all this work to track us down. It’s amazing.”
Curry visited the school with her husband, Samuel, and her sister Matilda Conley, who was accompanied by her husband, Edwin. Florence Powell came from a family of 13, all now deceased; she was a sister of the women’s father.
Curry and Conley were not much older than the Swift Creek Middle kids when they first met Kelley and his wife. “The family always called him Kelley,” Conley recalled, “never heard them call him ‘Leonard.’ ” Not until seeing materials related to Kelley’s 1993 death at age 76 did she learn of his middle name, Daniel. She added, in a more humorous vein, that for some reason he received the joking nickname of “Booger.”
They collectively remembered Kelley as good humored, with a big laugh, always welcoming and loving toward his numerous nieces and nephews, and well-liked by family. He was fond of cracking open walnuts and using a knife to dig out the middle, and strawberry pies. He seldom mentioned his Navy experiences. Kelley’s service record indicates that part of his hitch included time aboard the attack transport U.S.S. Monrovia. The vessel participated in both the European and Asian theaters of the war and received a number of commendations.
“He seemed quiet to us,” Conley said, “but maybe that was because of all those Powells around talking!”
The Conleys and Currys complimented the work of the students and emphasized how unique it was for people so young to be involved in conducting such a search for answers.
On a bulletin board, students kept track of their detective work with photocopies of pertinent documents and photographs. Colored string connected faces to places, as one sees in films about, well, investigations.
Plahs explained that their efforts began in December 2019 after a Bon Air couple donated the suitcase they’d found to Plahs, who possesses an intense curiosity about old objects. The suitcase contained a tantalizing variety of paperwork, including birth and marriage certificates, Kelley’s Navy uniform, medals, and an odd bag of ball bearings. This may have related to his civilian vocation with the Norfolk & Western railroad and as a member in good standing of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Engineers, attested by two punch cards keeping track of dues payments.
Plahs chose to use the suitcase as a teaching tool about research. “I stood back and became their guide,” she said. “I didn’t tell them how to go about it.”
The students posed three driving questions: Who was Leonard Daniel Kelley? How did his suitcase come to be found in Bon Air? Were any relatives living who could shed further light on Kelley, and to whom could his belongings be returned?
Plahs’ son, Timothy, then 16 and on his winter break, traveled to Crewe and found the house where Kelley once lived. He joined his mother on another excursion to the Nottoway County Courthouse to find related deeds and wills.
The search had barely started before the COVID-19 shutdowns. Work resumed in October 2021 and continues. Students, wearing archivists’ white gloves, sifted through documents in a hunt for names and created lists of connections.
And then, barely two weeks ago, student Alex Gonzalez, while tracking addresses online of Florence’s heirs (she died in 2001), turned to realtor.com.
“I went through the buying and selling history,” described Gonzalez, who’d never conducted such research before. “I looked up addresses and clicked the links.” He found one that recorded each property transaction. “I saw that this house was bought in 1987 and never sold.”
Plahs admitted to cheering and dancing a little when Alex gave her the news.
Soon thereafter, Delle Curry received not one but several letters of introduction and inquiry from students from both the classes working on the project. Now, through inquiries to scattered cousins and others, the desire is to find Kelley family members who could answer the big question of how the suitcase ended up in Bon Air, and who would want to take it home. The students organized the welcome event at the school, right down to the luncheon of chicken salad sandwiches and brownies.
Pinned to a corner of the project bulletin board is a grinning, youthful Kelley wearing his Navy uniform. His big smile squints his eyes under dark brows. His thick black hair, parted on the left, makes a high wave. He looks like a fellow capable of telling a good and probably funny story.
This comes with another grace note supplied by events: May 16-22, sailors from across the country will converge on Richmond for the first time in history for a Navy Week, during which they’ll visit and volunteer throughout the community.