Milford High seniors out to make history

Photo by KATHY CLEVELAND Milford High seniors McKinley Weatherford, Rachael Nelson and Christina Gibbs will be competing in the National History Day contest at the University of Maryland in June.

MILFORD – Mom usually knows best, but every now and then, it’s wise to ignore her advice.

McKinley Weatherford’s mother told her not to make jokes during the state history competition in April at Plymouth State University.

But Weatherford took first place, despite her lighthearted comments about one of the sources for her presentation on Scottish hero William Wallace.

“I was so nervous. I think it helped,” Weatherford said last week as she and her fellow Milford High School seniors – Rachael Nelson and Christina Gibbs – and their adviser, teacher Stephen Vetack, talked about their award-winning presentations that will allow the three seniors to compete in the National History Day contest in June.

Each of their 20-minute performances was based on hours of research, and often that research was difficult.

Weatherford’s subject was a leader of the Scottish fight for independence, known to people from the movie “Braveheart,” and he wasn’t an easy subject to tackle. The British destroyed most of the documentation referring to him, so “it was hard to find what was true, and what did and didn’t happen,” she said.

But Weatherford had a strong interest in Scottish history, partly because it’s a topic barely taught in high school, and partly because she had her DNA tested and found she has a fair amount of Scottish ancestry.

Nelson also took first place, and her presentation also fit the contest’s theme, “Taking a Stand in History.”

Nelson found an unusual group of rebels to research: students at Gallaudet University, the college for the deaf in Washington, D.C., who successfully pushed for a deaf president three decades ago.

Nelson is finishing her second year in American sign language, and “I was incredibly interested” in this group of peaceful revolutionaries, she said.

This is her third year in the contest, and she’s well aware that a 20-minute recitation of historical facts can bore an audience, even an audience of history teachers. So she structured her presentation as if she were making a documentary on National History Day competitors, which allowed her to cut in and out of the performance.

“Critique from the judges and from Mr. Vetack really helped with my performance techniques,” Nelson said. “There was a lot of trial and error.”

But research is what she likes best.

“Whenever I find new sources or new pieces of information, it’s thrilling,” Nelson said. “The more information you acquire, the more secure and confident you feel.”

The judges at the state contest rewarded Nelson’s research work with not only a first-place award for her presentation, but also the National Archives and Records Administration Award for best use of primary sources.

Gibbs took second place with a performance on Clifford Beers and his fight to improve mental health in America.

Beers struggled with bipolar disease and psychotic episodes, she said, at a time when there were few therapeutic methods or medications. In the early years of the 20th century, he led national and international efforts to improve institutional care, challenge the stigma of mental illness and promote mental health.

Gibbs called it a personal project because her family’s history includes mental health issues.

Beers, she said, “had such a drive and passion and was able to accomplish so much” to benefit the mentally ill.

This is the Milford High School History Club’s 16th consecutive year sending students to the national finals. During those 16 years, three Milford students finished in the top 20.

The contest will take place June 11-15 at the University of Maryland, where the Milford students will face winners from the other 49 states and from Department of Defense schools.

Vetack is proud of the students’ achievements.

“We, arguably, have the strongest history program in the state,” he said.

According to the National History Day website, the purpose of the contest “is to push past the antiquated view of history as mere facts and dates and drill down into historical content to develop perspective and understanding.”

The girls are selling flowers to raise money for the trip.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or