by Charles Cassady
“This is where it all starts … this is the foundation,” said Lucas George, Independence native and class of 2014 Independence High School alumnus.
For George, having a background and understanding of history is key to responsible participation in democracy itself. At the present, his students at Pickering Lakeview Junior High School, in Fairfield County, Ohio, have been covering the origins of the Boston Massacre and the bigger picture – Tea Party, Washington crossing the Delaware, the works – before and after.
“We come to think of history as these momentous events that pop up, but in reality one thing leads to another,” he said. “We’ve been building up to the American Revolution.”
George’s specialization in social studies gained him recognition by New York’s Gilder Lehrman Institute as a 2022 Ohio History Teacher of the Year.
George cites his chief inspirations in (aptly named) Independence. “I grew up in Independence my entire life,” George said. “My dad still lives there. I went to primary, secondary and high school in Independence.”
He credits his family for making school appealing, plus one special teacher. “I had some amazing siblings. There were very good at math and science [and] I wasn’t. … The first time I took a class with Mr. McGuinness, I really felt I was learning – and belonged there.”
Bill McGuinness, who still teaches in the Independence Local School District, teaches American and European history as well as cinema and American military history.
“This is my 29th year in the district,” said McGuinness. “I was hired for the 1994-95 school year. I originally taught in the former Independence Middle School building that was in the center of town. … Independence is an amazing place to teach, and students like Lucas George make it that way.
“Lucas was in my eighth-grade U.S. history class in the 2009-10 school year. I had the good fortune of also being Lucas’ high school principal for three of his four years at Independence High School. He was always a bright, energetic, and engaging student in class. His sense of humor and razor sharp wit always set him apart from others. I could always count on Lucas to ask really interesting questions and ignite our classroom discussions every day.”
George is equally complimentary to McGuinness. “He had a very big impact. He wore a shirt and tie every day to work,” said George. “And even though it’s `dumb,’ so do I. Every time I put it on it reminds me of him.”
After graduation, George continued his education at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio. A major windfall was earning a James Madison Foundation Fellowship. “They pick one teacher from each state. They gave me $24,000 to attend graduate school,” he said. “I was floored when I got that. That $24,000 allowed me to get my master’s.”
He would wind up teaching social studies at Franklin High School in Warren County for four years. It was there that he implemented a student project that made him stand out to the Gilder Lehrman Institute.
The local board of education embarked on a program to build a new high school, and George tasked his students with incorporating unsung local-history heroes (and heroines) in the new building design. He said they should be “figures who have been under-represented in the past in Franklin.”
Students partnered with a local historical society to narrow their focus down to three entrants: the “Adena” mound-building natives who lived centuries before white settlement, and Mary Kennedy Carter and Ada Louise Palsey, two prominent African-American women. The high-schoolers made a formal presentation of their choices to the school board.
“They just knocked it out of the park. They killed it,” said George. “I’m proud not of the project, but of the students.”
Said Bill McGuinness, “I love teaching history, as it is an endlessly interesting topic. There are so many compelling characters in our nation’s story. You never stop learning.”
McGuinness credits his pursuit of learning to his own grandfather, plus favorite United States history teachers from his own classroom days at Euclid High.
“We have had a number of our former Independence students go on to pursue careers in teaching,” said McGuinness. “There is nothing that makes us prouder as staff members than to see our former students go forward and pursue careers in service to others.” Before he left Franklin to teach at Pickering-Lakeview, George said one of his Franklin High students asked him to write her a letter of recommendation. She also wants to go into teaching, “just like Mr. George. He works so hard.”