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Cottonwood Heights Journal

Brighton High’s Jacob Simmons wins state, competes at National History Day Fair

Jul 03, 2019 03:54PM ● By Julie Slama

Brighton High’s Jacob Simmons, who is set to compete at nationals, is all smiles after being crowned state champion of the National History Day Fair. (Photo courtesy of Jacob Simmons)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Two local teens represented Canyons School District as state champions at the National History Day Fair in mid-June, both competing in the individual documentary category.

Brighton High junior Jacob Simmons isn’t a stranger to the national platform. For the past three years, he has competed at the national level, receiving honorable mentions in 2016 and 2018. This year, his documentary, “Fritz Haber: Feeding the World and Warfare,” went up against other states’ champions.

Joining him on the national scene is newcomer Midvale Middle School eighth-grader Cameron Jessop, with his documentary, “Next Year in Jerusalem: How American Volunteers Helped Survivors Sail from the Tragedy of the Holocaust to the Jewish Triumph of the State of Israel.” 

The National History Day fair was held June 9–13 at the University of Maryland College Park. Utah sent its two top entries for both junior and senior divisions in each category: documentary, exhibit, paper, website and performance.

Midvale Middle School eighth-graders Natalie McRoberts, Amber Parker and Abigail Slama-Catron finished third at the state contest in junior group documentary and served as national alternates.

For Simmons, who also won the regional title, it was an easy decision to compete in the individual documentary category. 

“I have total control over my own project, which also means it’s easier to work on it when I have time,” he said. “I love making documentaries and they are much more memorable than other categories.”

He also could call upon his experience. In his first year of competing, in 2014, Simmons was named a regional champion and qualified for state with his film, “Rights and Responsibilities in the Holocaust.” He repeated as a regional champion and qualified for state his next year with his documentary, “A Life of Power, A Legacy of Fear.”

In 2016, Simmons became a state champion and competed nationally with his documentary, “St. Eustatius: The Exploration, Encounter, and Exchange that Won the Revolution.” He returned to nationals as state champion the next year, with “Louis D. Brandeis: Standing for the People.” 

Last year, he received national honorable mention with “Rabin of Israel: A Story of War and Peace.” 

This year, he created his film on Fritz Haber, who is considered one of the most controversial scientists of the 20th century, after looking at a list of the 40 most influential people in history. Haber, who has been called a scientific genius but also a war criminal, oversaw the first chlorine gas attack of World War I.

“I looked into his life, those who interviewed him. Many of those primary archives were in Germany, but those archives at the British Museum were online. I interviewed his godson, Fritz Stern, as well as authors who had interviewed him and written books about him,” Simmons said. “It was debated whether he deserved the Nobel Prize.”

Simmons said Haber’s life and work certainly fit the National History Day theme, “Triumph and Tragedy.” 

“His story is one of the greatest triumphs as well as tragedies in history, and the impact of his life in the world of science shows great progress — but at what cost?” he said.

Even after being crowned state champion and receiving the special award in commemoration of the Utah World War I Commission, Simmons spent “hundreds of hours” making revisions for nationals.

“I conducted more interviews, replaced blurry images and tried to match those better with what was said about his personal life,” he said. “The most useful letters were those from his wife, and his friends Albert Einstein and Maxwell von Laue.”

Throughout Simmons’ involvement with National History Day fair, he has stayed in contact with his Albion Middle School eighth-grade social studies teacher, Eden Ellingson. 

Together, they were selected last year as a student-teacher team to take part in the 2018 Normandy: Sacrifice for Freedom Albert H. Small Student and Teacher Institute. After researching the National Archives in Washington, D.C. to tell the story of a fallen World War II hero, they traveled to Normandy, France to tour Omaha and Utah beaches and to honor their silent hero who died during the Normandy Invasion.

That was on top of his year of completing six of his 11 AP courses so far in high school, earning a perfect score on his ACT college exam and winning doubles in the state tennis tournament this spring.

Cameron, who was the junior individual documentary state champion, said although his four older siblings successfully competed at region, state and nationals, he didn’t pay attention to how they put together their documentaries.

“I just thought it would be easier and a better format for the interviews I taped,” he said.

Cameron’s documentary included three interviews with American sailors as well as period photographs and research.

“I didn’t know what happened between the Holocaust and Palestine. As I learned that the (British Minister for Health Aneurin) Bevan wasn’t allowing them in, even though (President Harry) Truman asked that 100,000 Jews be able to go there, I knew it was a story to tell. There’s not many who know that story of Americans willing to help and could die if they were caught,” said the eight-grader, who also is a student body officer and member of the National Junior Honors Society.

Earlier this year, Cameron’s film advanced from his school to Canyons School District’s history day fair, where he won the district title. He also won the regional title before being crowned state champion.

Even with this year’s nationals now over, Simmons already is researching his topic for next spring’s competition.

“National History Day Fair is totally worth it. Last year, we toured the capitol and met with Mike Lee. We also went to the Holocaust Museum, Newseum and National Portrait Gallery, where we worked with people there to see how the theme could relate to sources there,” he said. “I’ve learned lessons in how our past affects our future.”