I recently spoke with Jim Heiman, author of the newest Woodneath Press book, Front Lines to Headlines: The World War I Overseas Dispatches of Otto P. Higgins, and asked what his motivation was for writing this book. Here was Jim’s response:
I was motivated by how near the First World War had been to me throughout my life. I had grown up with the stories my parents and grandparents told about both of the World Wars, and I was very aware that my family was German. I heard all four of my grandparents speak in German; from an early age, I knew that my grandfather and great uncles fought the Germans in World War I, and that in World War II, my family worked in defense plants and served in the army and navy. They had even changed the spelling of our name so that it didn’t look so German. From a very young age, I have been conflicted—proud of my heritage, and at the same time, at war with it.
Then I met Otto P. Higgins. He, too, was near—a neighbor on East 32nd Street in Kansas City. He, too, spoke German―he had learned the language from both of his grandmothers who lived with the family―and he had been the correspondent for the Kansas City Star during the Great War. His house was like a museum, and I was fascinated by the souvenirs and pictures he had collected, but the war came home to me in an even more near and personal way when I read some of the stories he wrote―stories packed away in an old steamer trunk since the war.
That personal impact of war in both oral and written forms intensified 10 years later when my brother and I were drafted into the Vietnam War. By that time, Otto had been dead for four years. My grandfather and great uncles had also died, but the stories that had grown cold with their passing, still burned in spirit inside me. In 2008, I discovered that I could find the stories again in the microfilm editions of the Kansas City Star, so I began visiting the library on my way home from work to read and make copies. After two years, I had collected hundreds of Higgins’ stories, looked at hundreds of pages of ads, and read hundreds of newspaper articles from 1917 to 1919.
I discovered that the story of WWI was a local story. It had been near to home from the very beginning. The artillery, signal corps, infantry, machine gun, ammunition train, and hospital units of the 35th Division National Guardsmen and 89th Division draftees were not only raised locally, but were trained locally and went overseas as intact units. Higgins had been a local reporter, writing local news stories. He personally knew many of the men and the officers who had raised the units, and when he was later selected to write about their training and overseas deployment, he used local allusions, metaphors, references, and comparisons to write about them for a local audience that was intimately familiar with the local scene.
Having Otto P. Higgins live so near, and his articles as close as on the local library’s microfilm of the Kansas City Star, seemed to fit with the familial connections I had with WWI, WWII, and my own war experience. I realized how close this war was to me and to Kansas City itself.
Now, 100 years later, the last of the WWI generation are dead and buried. Last year, we observed the centennial of the end of the war, and now in 2019, we are celebrating the homecoming of those men and women from the war. It’s now time to have our grandparents and great-grandparents tell their stories in their own words once again. That’s what this book is all about.
A launch event for Front Lines to Headlines featuring a conversation with Jim Heiman will be held on Saturday, April 20, at 2:00 p.m. at MCPL’s Woodneath Library Center. Front Lines to Headlines is available for purchase anywhere books are sold.
The Story Center at Mid-Continent Public Library offers print-on-demand and publishing services for our customers. We provide print-on-demand services primarily through our state-of-the-art Espresso Book Machine, and we’ve published five books to date through our award-winning Woodneath Press imprint with new publications coming each year.
The Story Center