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Chesterfield students uncover history of mystery suitcase found inside house from former Bon Air Inn

Published: May. 16, 2022 at 6:47 PM EDT|Updated: May. 16, 2022 at 7:09 PM EDT
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CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. (WWBT) - Inside a classroom at Swift Creek Middle School, seventh graders are piecing together the history behind a mystery suitcase found inside a house in Bon Air, which used to be part of the former Bon Air Inn.

Chesterfield students are uncovering the mystery behind a suitcase found inside a Bon Air home.
Chesterfield students are uncovering the mystery behind a suitcase found inside a Bon Air home.(Source;NBC12 | NBC12)

Pam Rockenbach Plahs, a teacher at Swift Creek Middle School, has been acting as a guide for these students as they uncover the items found in this suitcase, which Plahs heard about through one of her coworkers.

“He lives in a historic neighborhood, and a couple, one of his neighbors, had this suitcase and was telling him about it,” Plahs said. “The couple was very kind and donated the suitcase to us.”

Plahs said the work to research the history behind the suitcase started in 2019 but was delayed due to the pandemic.

“In 2019, we barely got started on the project until COVID shut us down, and we picked back up this year,” Plahs said.

Inside the suitcase were artifacts from Leonard Daniel Kelley, a veteran of World War II.

Students started to research the history behind Leonard Daniel Kelley, the man who owned a...
Students started to research the history behind Leonard Daniel Kelley, the man who owned a suitcase found in a Bon Air home.(Source;NBC12 | NBC12)

“The first thing they did, kind of like historians would do, is they started asking questions,” said Plahs to her class on Monday morning.

From a Navy uniform to a notebook, students spent their time cataloging and researching each artifact in the suitcase to uncover Kelley’s history.

Students found artifacts from World War II belonging to Leonard Daniel Kelley.
Students found artifacts from World War II belonging to Leonard Daniel Kelley.(Source;NBC12 | NBC12)

On a board inside their classroom, students put together a timeline of his history from the house in Crewe he grew up in, his military record, and the list of heirs from his will.

“The students are learning to follow up leads, and the leads aren’t always going to get them anywhere,” said Plahs. “One of the things that they learn is what do we do when we hit that dead end?”

Through this research, Plahs said her students are learning critical thinking skills while fulfilling their mission to find Kelley’s living relatives.

“Things that he had from World War II and the service he did for our country, they wanted to be able to return these to the family,” Plahs said.

Research led students to Delle Curry, Leonard Daniel Kelley’s niece. Students wrote a letter to her with hopes of connecting.

Students wrote a letter to Delle Curry after finding her uncle's suitcase.
Students wrote a letter to Delle Curry after finding her uncle's suitcase.(Source;NBC12 | NBC12)

“I got a letter from them when I got home last Monday,” Curry said. “It was just exciting to think that the kids were initiating a lot of this.”

This letter led to a classroom visit from Curry and other members of Kelley’s family on Monday.

During this time, students were able to ask more questions about Kelley’s life, who he was, and potential leads for their future research.

Family members of Leonard Daniel Kelley visited students in Chesterfield to talk about his...
Family members of Leonard Daniel Kelley visited students in Chesterfield to talk about his suitcase and the artifacts found inside.(Source;NBC12 | NBC12)

For members of Kelley’s family, this moment was also met with new information about their loved one’s life.

“We only knew him as an engineer,” said Tilly Conley, Kelley’s niece. “We didn’t know a whole lot about his past, his Navy career.

Students hope to solve the mystery of how the suitcase ended up inside the Bon Air home; a project Plahs said shows students a lesson that goes beyond their history textbook.

“It’s giving them an understanding that history is not just dates. It’s human people,” she said. “It’s people, and they have stories to tell.”

The suitcase and artifacts will be donated to Kelley’s family.

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