GLENCOE, MINN. – To impress upon his students the harsh reality of war, Dean Scheele turned from the history books to his own family's story.

After his father, a World War II veteran, died in 1987, Scheele uncovered handwritten diary entries and other artifacts long hidden in an attic trunk, and decided to use them to teach eighth-graders at First Lutheran School here about Adolf Hitler, Pearl Harbor and the horrors of Nazi Germany.

But one letter to Scheele's father, from a grieving mother of one of his fellow crew members killed in a training mission, haunted the teacher. So Scheele gave his class a challenge: Track down the woman's extended family so that they could, after a half century, return the letter to her relatives.

"It's a way to honor veterans," Scheele said this week as students looked at the black-and-white photos of his father's Air Force crew. "It's not just stuff in books. It's real people here."

Scheele's assignment is not only teaching teenagers in this town of 5,550 residents the impact of the war, it's also reconnecting two Minnesota and Ohio families.

On April 17, 1945, Ruth Givens wrote a letter to Scheele's father, Marvin, mourning the loss of her 24-year-old son, Don, who had survived 30 combat missions in the South Pacific as a co-pilot in the Seventh Air Force only to be killed in a training mission in Los Angeles just a few months before the war ended.

Marvin Scheele, of Hamburg, Minn., was in the same 10-member crew as Don Givens. He was the only crew member to survive the war, which is why Ruth Givens wrote to him.

"If only I could get the picture or thoughts from my mind of him being burned," she wrote of her son, the youngest of her three children. "I was so happy, and now I wonder if I can ever be happy again."

Seventy-three years later, students in Dean Scheele's class had only Ruth Givens' name and a Wellsville, Ohio, return address as they launched their search to find her relatives last fall. For months, they combed through ancestry records, obituaries and Google maps, and sent letters to Ohio city officials, the historical society and county recorder, hoping for any details to track down relatives.

"We only had the letter to go on," said Rebekah Welch, 13. "It was frustrating and a lot of work … just finding the pieces to fit together."

Several months in, they finally got a hit.

After finding the names of two of Don Givens' nephews, they sent letters to confirm the men were related to the WWII pilot. Three days later, the phone rang at First Lutheran School in Glencoe. It was Donald Givens Goodman, 71, who had gotten the letter at his Columbus, Ohio, home, surprised to hear of a connection to his late uncle, for whom he was named.

This Saturday, Scheele, Welch and classmate Emma Becker will trek to Chicago, where they will meet up with Goodman to hand him the letter.

"It was a big surprise," Goodman said of learning about the letter. "He was a young guy interested in making something of himself. To lose him, it was a pretty deep sorrow. It will mean a lot to me to see what she had to say."

At the 107-student private school in Glencoe, his uncle's story is helping students understand that the 400,000 U.S. military deaths in WWII are more than just statistics listed in history books.

With a dwindling number of surviving WWII veterans, most of Scheele's students are too young to have any personal connection to the war. That's why Scheele — who teaches social studies, science and physical education while doubling as the school's principal — tells his students of the letter, hoping it will help them better understand an important chapter of world history while honoring the veterans like Givens who never made it home.

"I think it's something they're going to remember," Scheele said of his students, adding of the heartbreak expressed in the letter: "That happened 400,000 times."

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141