Experiencing History – Understanding Donald James McDougall

As the Department of History joins in today’s commemoration of all veterans, we are honored to feature the related work of one of our most recent graduates, Meghan McDougall (’15). While completing her senior year at Ball State, Meghan desired to compile a narrative which encapsulated the experience of her great-grandfather, Donald James McDougall, as he and other young Canadians readied themselves for, and fought through, “The Great War” – World War I. Through her diligence, a spectacular idea became an equally stunning product, materializing into her work, Donald James McDougall: The Growth of a Man and the Birth of a Nation. Recently, Miss McDougall was kind enough to provide us with a behind-the-scenes tour of the mechanics of her research and writing, as well as a glimpse into her personal experience, while composing the ongoing project:


“Donald James McDougall: The Growth of a Man and the Birth of a Nation follows the life of Donald McDougall.  From his early years in Sudbury, Ontario to his enlistment and combat in Northern France, Donald’s experiences mirrored that of many young Canadian men as they defended the British commonwealth.  As the country aided the Triple Alliance, Canadians began to realize their national pride, creating a separation of culture between the Northern frontier and the British empire.

During my final semester at Ball State, I had the privilege of working with Dr. Smith on a project that my Grandfather had been hoping to complete since I can remember.  I spent most of my winter break of Senior year photocopying, categorizing and summarizing over 900 primary documents that had been part of my grandfather’s collection of material.  This diligence saved me an incredible amount of time and energy when citing all of the letters, journals, and war diaries I had access too.  As I made the drive from Toronto to Muncie one last time, I began to understand the magnitude of the project I was about to undertake.  It dawned on me that this paper was not simply a means to an end, but was the beginning of a journey within my own past.

Despite a busy semester, Dr. Smith and I were able to meet at least once every two weeks to ensure that I was on the right track.  We created a plan that would tie the progression of Canadian nationalism via the First World War with the struggle and growth that my Great Grandfather experienced throughout his life.  By focusing our attention outward to Donald’s surrounding environment, it became easier to understand who he was becoming as the country readied for war. This process required me to spend many hours on the third and fourth floors of the library with secondary materials in order to establish a connection between the experiences of Donald and those around him.  After establishing the narrative of the story, Donald’s actions could be better understood.  Beginning the writing process was difficult due to the size of the project, but after I put the first several words on the page it all seemed to come together.  Two months of research, six weeks of writing and three weeks of editing later, my senior project was ready to be submitted.    

One of the reasons I find history so incredibly interesting is that real people experienced the events that we choose to study.  Although sometimes a difficult task, I always attempt to empathize with those who were apart of the time period I analyze.  Putting myself in Donald’s shoes was both an emotional and eye opening experience.  The strength, tenacity, and resilience he demonstrated at twenty-three are qualities I strive to possess.  Reading letters he wrote to his friends, journals he published and newspaper clippings where he explained the mechanics of the golf swing brought life to Donald’s story.  I am so privileged to have had this opportunity. Donald James McDougall’s struggles, successes, and experiences inspire me to never give up and always keep pushing.  I look forward to continuing his story as there is still so much to tell.

We extend a special thank-you to Meghan for her contribution, and to all our service men and women – past and present – on this day of remembrance. Be certain to thank a veteran!

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