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Chesterfield students unearth story of mystery suitcase found in house of former Bon Air Inn

CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. (WWBT) – In a classroom at Swift Creek Middle School, seventh graders piece together the story of a mysterious suitcase found in a house in Bon Air, which was once part of the old Bon Air Inn.

Chesterfield students uncover the mystery behind a suitcase found in a Bon Air house.(Source; NBC12 | NBC12)

Pam Rockenbach Plahs, a teacher at Swift Creek Middle School, served as a guide for these students as they uncovered the items found in that suitcase, which Plahs heard about from one of her co-workers.

“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 were very nice and donated the suitcase to us.

Plahs said research work on the story of the suitcase began in 2019 but was delayed due to the pandemic.

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

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

The students began researching the story of Leonard Daniel Kelley, the man who owned a...
The students began researching the story of Leonard Daniel Kelley, the man who owned a suitcase found in a Bon Air home.(Source; NBC12 | NBC12)

“The first thing they did, much like historians would, is they started asking questions,” Plahs told his class Monday morning.

From a navy uniform to a notebook, the students spent their time cataloging and researching every artifact in the suitcase to uncover Kelley’s story.

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

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

“Students learn to follow leads, and leads aren’t always going to take them anywhere,” Plahs said. “One of the things they learn is what do we do when we come to this impasse?”

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

“The things he had from World War II and the service he did to our country, they wanted to be able to give it back to the family,” Plahs said.

The search led the students to Delle Curry, Leonard Daniel Kelley’s niece. The students wrote him a letter hoping to connect.

The students wrote a letter to Delle Curry after finding her uncle's suitcase.
The 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 kids were the origin of a lot of things.”

That letter led to a class visit by 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 avenues for their future research.

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

For members of Kelley’s family, this moment was also greeted 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 much about his background, his career in the Navy.

The students hope to solve the mystery of how the suitcase ended up inside the Bon Air house; one project, according to Plahs, shows students a lesson that goes beyond their history textbook.

“It allows them to understand that history is not just dates. They are human people,” she said. “They are people, and they have stories to tell.”

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

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