Our Connection with Ripley’s Believe It or Not

As a young boy, I was intrigued by cartoons by Robert Ripley. I often cut them out of the local newspaper. They made me think. They made me wonder but as the years passed, I left them behind.

Fast-forward to a time I was teaching at Washington Elementary. I had six sixth-grade boys who were not happy doing work which required them to use dictionaries and encyclopedias. I kept trying to think of ways to get them engaged. Then one weekend at a garage sale, I found a Ripley’s Believe It or Not! book. That night I was reading it and found a cartoon about a flintlock rifle stuck in an oak tree. The most exciting part about it? The story stated that it was owned by a man named Stanton Price in the neighboring town of Chehalis. I showed it to those boys the next week. They got very excited and I started teaching them how to research if the story was true.

The boys started researching their questions. Did oak trees grow in the area? Did flintlock rifles indeed exist during the time period of the story? The students looked in the phone book for Stanton Price and found that name in the town of Oakville. We called him and he said he had lived in Chehalis for 45 years but did not own anything like that. But just before we hung up, he told us there was another man with the same name in Chehalis, and how they were always getting mixed up and getting each other’s mail. He said the other Price owned a business of some sort on Boistfort Avenue. In 1997 the local newspaper, The Chronicle, featured an article on the class and our use of Ripley’s odd items, including the “gun tree”. This prompted a gentleman from Littlerock to share his first-hand knowledge of the gun-tree. (To learn the many stories about the Gun Tree click here!)

Once I saw how the Ripley’s book excited the students, I helped them write letters to people all over the world to learn about items they chose from Ripley’s. We often received informational letters and souvenirs in return. Use of Ripley’s materials continued as internet access was introduced to our classroom. I first thought that this could be a good source of answers for my students. When we began using the Internet it required “dial-up” service to Olympia and cost $1 a minute. Most of the websites were text only and still took a long time to load.

Soon, I realized that using the Internet as a publishing medium for student research could be even more powerful than simply looking for answers there. I knew that publishing the Ripley’s cartoons could be the “hook” to get people to read our postings but to do that would require permission from Ripley’s Inc. My students and I searched for a website or email for Ripley’s but they didn’t have one! We did find a “snail-mail” address and wrote them a letter to ask for permission to post their cartoons on the website we were building (using raw HTML) to show their work. A couple of weeks later, we got a call from Ripley’s Headquarters telling us that they could not give us permission to use the cartoons. They added that they had faxed our letter to Mr. Robert Whiteman, licensing director for Ripley’s and that he might get back to us in a few days.

The next morning, Mr. Whiteman called. He was very supportive, providing a box of books and posters for the kids, as well as the permission we needed. Our website attracted attention from people all around the world who took the time and effort to provide further information, and often current photographs of items we had posted from Ripley’s. It was amazing to see 10 year olds interacting with Mayors, Governors, Research PHD’s and others. Students’ attitudes towards reading and writing changed.

My students’ assessment scores also grew rapidly. Many of them went from struggling, reluctant readers to solid and successful students. I often had students who did not qualify for my “remedial reading” classes ask how they could be included. “If I fail the end of the year test we are taking next week can I be in your class next year?” I wanted to see what other student could do with our “research projects”.

I proposed that we replace our annual “Science Fair” with an “Odditorium in the Auditorium”. By now, I had acquired a sizable library of Ripley’s books as well as a vast variety of specialized, reference books. Students selected odd items from a Ripley’s book then tried to prove or disprove Ripley. They also built dioramas, made posters, wrote booklets, etc. about their research. We invited the community to join us. TV stations from Portland and Seattle sent crews to document these events. Edward Meyer, vice president of Ripley’s joined us, as did Scott Brody, the owner of the Ripley’s Museum in Newport, Oregon, Julie Mooney, author of a pending Ripley’s book and hundreds of people from our area. Little did I know that I would be included in that book!

In the summer of 1997, I was invited to present at the International Conference for Computer Education in Oslo, Norway. On that trip, I met a man from Australia who was taking a 12 month trip around the world. We talked about his trip and my work with Ripley’s and my students. A few weeks after we got home, he called and asked if he could be a detective for my students. For the next few months, we kept in contact via fax machines at hostiles and hotels. He told us his itinerary for the next week and we found places for him to go and things for him to find for us. The following spring, he ended up at our school just before he flew back to Australia.

We had a second “Odditorium in the Auditorium” while James was with us. He shared what he had learned as my students shared their work. A good time was had by all. Little did we know that that would be the last year we would be able to use our odd research projects in class. The school district adopted a new reading program the following year and everything changed. Not necessarily for the better…but it changed!