It started with two haunting photographs.
Back when she was a freshman, Charissa Roberson ‘22 wanted to write a bilingual play. The French and creative writing double-major was researching World War II to find storylines to inspire her when she found two photographs that grabbed her attention.
They were both from the French town of Saint-Lô. One was a flag-draped coffin in the bombed-out streets of the city, and the other was of two boys overlooking the rubble of the town. She got to work discovering the backstories of these two images.
Three years of research later, Roberson has created an immersive, bilingual experience that she will present at 7 p.m. Saturday in the Wortmann Ballroom at the Colket Center. The presentation, “The Crossroads of Saint-Lô”, examines the lives of two men — Major Thomas Howie, U.S. Army Infantry Officer, and French resistance fighter Raymond Robin — who died in that area during the war.
The two were ordinary family men before the war, who each played roles in the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944. The more Roberson learned about them, the more similarities she found.
“Both of these men ended up dying for the causes that they were fighting for,” Roberson said. “So the parallels were kind of staggering to me.”
The presentation will include photographs, radio broadcasts from the war, actors in period costumes, exhibits and more. Descendents of Howie — who was from Staunton, Virginia — will be in attendance. Admission is free and members of the public are invited to attend.
Howie’s story was well traveled at the time. He was a respected leader and made it a personal mission to be among the first American troops to enter the city. He was killed before the Americans made it to Saint-Lô, but he was so respected that the Americans brought his body into the city when they entered it.
A photo of the coffin — one of several that inspired Roberson — was widely circulated, and prior to his name being released, Howie was known as “The Major of Saint-Lô.”
Robin’s story wasn’t nearly as well known, Roberson said. The photo of the two boys overlooking the city became a famous photo, but the boys in it weren’t identified until 2014, when one of them came across the photo in a book. Robin was their father.
Saint-Lô is one of Roanoke’s sister cities, and through an internship with the Roanoke Valley Sister Cities organization, Roberson was able to make connections in Saint-Lô and learn more about Robin’s life as a member of the French Resistance who helped pave the way for the D-Day Invasion.
Through that internship, Roberson did a great deal of research in French, which strengthened her French skills and opened the door to a variety of French resources that wouldn’t have been available had she just been looking for resources in the English language.
Roberson has worked with Dr. Alison Clifton, assistant professor of French, on the project. The two met when Roberson — who wasn’t intending on majoring in French — took a class with Clifton as a freshman. Roberson ended up becoming more interested in the major and is now going to graduate with two majors, in addition to a screen studies concentration.
Clifton said double-majoring in a language and another field is relatively common and is indicative of the value of a liberal arts education.
“We often have combinations between French and English, literary studies, creative writing, but also French and the sciences, French and international relations," Clifton said. "We see quite a few different combinations. And that, I think, is a real advantage of being here at Roanoke College, to be able to study in the liberal arts tradition, exploring a variety of disciplines that offer our students a range of experiences.”
Roberson and Clifton are doing last-minute preparations for Saturday’s presentation, and Roberson is looking forward to finally unveiling her immersive experience.
“The hope is that when you step into the room, it'll be like you’re back in the ‘40s,” Roberson said. “There’ll be period music and news playing and wartime posters up, so hopefully it'll be a little bit like a time capsule.”