SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — The World War II Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in South Kingstown that works to educate future generations about the experience of what has been dubbed “The Greatest Generation,” recently announced it will be creating a Global Education Center on the first floor of the former Kenyon’s Department Store, 344 Main St., Wakefield.
Tim Gray, a South Kingstown native and founder of the foundation, said he hopes the center will be open by the start of the academic year in September. He said there will be artifacts on display, books that can be checked out and a small theater where visitors can watch films. The site will also host lectures, panel discussions, veterans’ speaking events and more.
“We’ve been doing this for 12 years, and it’s all been kind of focused on documentary films,” Gray said. “The most logical progression is to have a physical location where we can bring school groups in, the community, researchers, educators – using our films as the foundation of this place, and then expanding out so we can have books and having the films play and artifacts and everything. So we’re building a comprehensive learning center.”
He described the center as “hands-on and very visual.”
The organization has always focused on personal stories from the war, Gray said. The foundation made its first film in 2006, traveling with five veterans as they returned to Normandy in France. Gray said one film led to another, and the foundation started getting involved with American Public Television. Now, he said the films rank among the most requested programs nationally by PBS stations, and many prominent people have lent their voices as narrators.
The films created the basis of the foundation, which was formally created in 2012. Gray said he is expecting the 21st film to be released in November.
“People want to hear these personal stories,” Gray said. “It’s not over their head. It’s not the strategy of why we got into World War II, or why we invaded Normandy. It’s about the individual soldier or survivor or young person who got caught up in it.”
Gray said moving forward, they will release two films a year, rather than the three to four each year that has been standard.
“We look for stories that motivate people to want to learn more,” he said. “History is a hard sell. It’s always the first thing to go in school ... It’s important for me to preserve it.”
Gray said 600 World War II veterans die a day, so the window to be able to do their kind of work, which requires interacting with veterans and hearing their stories, is closing. A 1989 graduate of the University of Rhode Island with a degree in journalism, he has always been interested in such stories.
“I think there’s a blueprint there with how America cooperated and came together during that time,” he said. “If people want to look at how this divided country can come together again, look at how they did it. We don’t have to be attacked to do it. It seems like America only comes together after an attack like Pearl Harbor or 9/11. It shouldn’t be that way. We have the capability to come together at any time ... The lessons of that generation are still very relevant today.”
The World War II Foundation has been looking for a location for the last five years. Gray said the former Kenyon’s building is the kind of place “that you know is going to work out perfectly for what we want to do.” It was built in 1981 and is in the center of Wakefield.
The foundation has a five-year lease for the site with an option for another five. Gray said some work remains in terms of painting and redoing the floors. Once the center is closer to opening, he plans to reach out to local schools to have students visit.
“When it finally opens up, it’ll be great for the community to have something like that, to have another museum that recognized that time period,” he said. “We want to grow it. We want it to be a place where it serves all of southern New England, eventually.”