If you ask Autumn Hendrickson ’24 to recite the death date of a World War II soldier from Reading, Mass., she’ll likely know the correct answer. While most college students are memorizing the names of Taylor Swift’s cats, Hendrickson can tell you where the soldier grew up and even his father’s occupation.
“I fell in love with understanding them in a way that I felt I hadn’t been able to before,” said Hendrickson, who is also from Reading. “It’s so weird to me because these guys are a big part of my life now. It’s crazy that I didn’t know who they were a few years ago.”
While the English with secondary education major now gets excited to talk about World Wars I and II, her journey to love history only started about 10 years ago. The interest primarily stemmed from a complex upbringing, explained Hendrickson.
After being born in Massachusetts and taken from her biological parents, she moved to a foster home in Reading with two women and stayed there until the age of 2.
Her biological aunt then decided to adopt Hendrickson with her husband, and moved her to Florida until age 10. When things didn’t work out, she moved back to Reading with the women who adopted her at age 11, and has stayed there ever since.
In high school, Hendrickson’s whole world shifted on a trip to Nova Scotia. Upon realizing that her maternal great-grandfather was from the province, she delved into the genealogy of her family.
When she visited the town where he was from and found his gravesite, something clicked.
“That really sparked my love of history because I got to touch the grass above my fourth great-grandfather,” she said. “That’s when I started to really think this is interesting. I wanted to know more about what his life was like.”
Going further into her family tree, she realized that many of her relatives served and died during World War I. After that, Hendrickson became a World War I history buff for many years.
But when Covid hit and she got offered a job to write articles for The Reading Post, the student knew that many people weren’t interested in reading about the First World War. She knew she had to pivot to WWII, and decided she wanted to take readers back in time.
With a box of goldfish and the Ken Burns documentary The War on the TV behind her, Hendrickson sat down to examine World War II draft cards from Reading. The first card she picked, coincidentally, happened to be one of the 32 soldiers from the town who had died during the war.
“All of a sudden, I could connect to the war, because these men lived in my hometown,” said Hendrickson. “There was a man who lived in the house next door to the house I grew up in who served in the Marines. I didn’t feel so removed from it.”
With this research and more from various archives, Hendrickson decided to share her research online in May 2020, calling the project Reading’s Boys. In it, she tells the stories of the soldiers from Reading who served and died in the war.
Out of the 857 soldiers from Reading who served in the Second World War, Hendrickson has files on every single one. With five of them currently alive, she has also been able to interview them. She’s also interviewed Reading residents who were young children during the war, getting other perspectives along the way.
Now, Hendrickson is turning the research into her senior thesis, which will be one of five books in a future series. The first will chronicle World War II from 1939 through 1941. Hendrickson explained that many of her education and English professors have been very supportive of her endeavor.
While she has spent a great deal of time and money on this project, she noted that it has been 100 percent worth it. Hendrickson has given multiple talks on her research, including recently at the Reading Memorial Public Library, among others.
She has also met the relatives of the men she’s researching and explained that it’s been good to meet people who are different from herself. Sometimes, she said, they’ll tell Hendrickson that she reminds them of their relative. They might also give her artifacts from their dad or family member.
“I have struggled most of my life to have strong male role models and male figures in my life,” she said. “In some ways, I think that might be why I’m so drawn to some of these guys, too.”
Looking towards graduation in May, Hendrickson hopes to complete the first book. She would like to teach both English and history and is planning to pursue her master’s in military history.
“It's a very fulfilling thing. I've said this to people, if this is my life's work, I am perfectly okay with that,” she said.