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The mystery of history

Leetonia teen uncovers life of Youngstown serviceman

Keturah Hamilton, 17, of Leetonia, displays what sheás found about Mary Julius of St. Louis, who exchanged letters with Staff Sgt. John Roth of Youngstown before his death in a plane crash in 1943. Keturah tracked down yearbook photos and news clippings of Julius' life, as well as that of Roth's after finding a number of letters and postcards from and about Roth in an antique store. (Staff photo / Burton Cole)

Editor’s note: This is an introduction to Keturah Hamilton, 17, of Leetonia, who has a passion for discovering the lives behind artifacts she finds in area antique shops. In an accompanying column, Keturah describes the journey in her own words.

The quest began with a letter written in 1943 to the Youngstown mother of a serviceman killed in an airplane crash.

Keturah Hamilton plucked it from a shelf of letters and postcards in an antique shop in Columbiana.

“I cried right in the middle off the antique store. I sobbed right in the middle of the antique store would be more accurate,” Keturah said.

It was February and she was celebrating her 17th birthday foraging through area antique stores.

“I’ve always been into history,” the homeschooled high school senior from Leetonia said. “The rest of my family hates antiquing.”

Keturah’s research later would turn up a way-too-brief notice in the March 13, 1943, Youngstown Vindicator: “Staff Sgt. John F. Roth, 26, son of Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Roth, of 35 N. Hartford Ave., was the victim of a plane crash in the Latin-American area. His parents have been officially notified. He was a plane mechanic and had not been home since his induction March 16, 1942.”

Keturah scoured the shelf and came up with more letters and postcards pertaining to the life and death of Roth.

“All the letters, they were just sitting there, lost, and I felt really upset about it. You give your life, you make the ultimate sacrifice, and he wasn’t recognized the way I thought it (his life) should be,” she said. “I wanted it to be known.”

AN OLD SOUL

Keturah Hamilton lives in a past she has never known.

“I’ve always felt like I’m 90 trapped in a teenager’s body,” she said.

Other kids her age consider history a bunch of stale names and old dates to memorize, she said.

“I’ve always felt other people’s pain so deeply, I don’t understand it. I don’t just see names and dates; I see the people, I can feel what they saw and felt.”

“She’s an old soul,” her mother, Deanna Hamilton, said. “She’s empathetic. She can put herself in someone else’s shoes.”

Keturah wears an engagement ring she found in an antique store. To others, it might just be old, abandoned jewelry. To Keturah, there’s a whole story of love and life and pain and joy locked away in the mysteries of the jewelry. Yes, she cried over the ring.

Until the Roth letters took over her life, she didn’t spend much time on American history. She preferred to study European history, particularly Mary, Queen of Scots, her heroine since age 12.

“I wrote an essay on her just for fun.”

Old letters typically run $4 to $5 at antique stores, she said. The real investment is the time, emotions and frustrations of tracking down the stories and people behind those letters. She cried with relief when she found a photograph of Roth. She cried with frustration when she tracked down another sibling only to discover she, too, had already passed on.

One of her treasures among the Roth letters is a small, blue envelope crammed with a 10-page letter and a photograph of Mary Julius of St. Louis. It was addressed to Roth’s sister, Betty, and described how Julius and Roth got to know each other when he was in Missouri for two weeks.

Keturah’s investigations found that Julius had died in 2000 after two marriages. Keturah collected yearbook photos and news clippings of Julius’s life.

“He wrote her 22 letters in eight months,” Keturah said. “I wanted the 22 letters. I contacted a bunch of antique stores where she lived.”

Besides the antique wooden box in which she keeps the letters, Keturah has a red folder full of research printouts of military records, historical documents and a Roth family tree that she’s building.

PAST, PRESENT, FUTURE

She has been in contact with various nieces, nephews and other relatives of Sgt. John Roth. Some expressed interest in the letters. Keturah said she will hang onto the originals but will transcribe the contents for them. She bought a vintage manual typewriter with hard-to-pound keys for the job. “I like the clicking sound. It makes me happy.”

Her favorite song to listen to when she’s working on her research project: “We’ll Meet Again,” recorded by Vera Lynn for the movie of the same name that was released in 1943 — the same year that Roth died.

“The ’40s, that’s my time,” she said.

Despite that passion, she plans to pursue a degree in a different field when she enrolls in college next year.

“I’m a violin and piano player and I teach. I have 17 students in my private studio,” she said. She plans to study music education, then open a bigger teaching studio.

Her students not only learn notes and music, but lessons about the lives of the composers.

Until then, she continues to delve into the life and times of Sgt. John Roth, late of Youngstown. For example, she can’t find any military records on the airplane crash that claimed his life.

“I’m still working on it. I’m on a group email with like 10 YSU history professors researching the plane crash,” she said.

And she continues to visit antique shops for more clues, hoping for another emotional piece of a soldier’s story to fall into place.

“(At the store), they know me as the girl that cried,” she said.

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