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Brownsville alum to discuss Battle of Gettysburg's impact on townspeople

Deb Novotny (right) Civil War Roundtable speaker March 2014

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By Les Harvath
Saturday, March 8, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

No sooner did Brownsville native and Brownsville Area High School grad Deb Novotny — Class of 1968 — and her parents conclude their tour of the Gettysburg Battlefield shortly after she completed the fifth grade than she told her parents that the family should move to Gettysburg.

Her father, a meat cutter at the California A&P could find a similar job in Gettysburg, she thought.

My parents told me, Novotny recalls, laughing, “‘When you grow up, you can move to Gettysburg.' That's exactly what I did.”

Following graduation from California State College (as the university was known at the time) in 1972 with a degree in secondary education and major in history, she applied for a teaching post at every high school around Gettysburg. No luck. Instead, she accepted a teaching position at her alma mater, Brownsville Catholic Elementary, and taught social studies to fifth- through eighth-graders for five years while studying for her master's degree in history at Cal U.

With a future in Gettysburg still dominating her thoughts, she passed the rigorous tests to become a licensed battlefield guide in 1975. A week after she finished her master's work, she relocated to Gettysburg with a position as battlefield guide, and nothing else. With guiding a seasonal job, she worked as a substitute in Gettysburg area schools until she was offered a part-time, junior high world history teaching position. A year-and-a-half later she was hired, full time, to teach 11th-grade U.S. History at Gettysburg Area High School.

“That's exactly the job I wanted since I was 10 years old,” she said. “I had my dream jobs — teaching and guiding.”

With her teaching position behind her — she retired in 2008 after 35 years in the classroom, including 29 years in Gettysburg — Novotny became a full-time, licensed battlefield guide.

On Thursday, Novotny will return to her alma mater as the featured speaker at the California University of Pennsylvania Civil War Roundtable and, true to form, she will take her guests on a brief tour of the cemetery at Gettysburg. But not the Gettysburg National Cemetery, “the final resting place for more than 3,500 Union soldiers killed in the Battle of Gettysburg,” notes the National Park Service website, but rather the adjacent Evergreen Cemetery.

“This is the civilian side and story of another part of the Battle of Gettysburg,” said Novotny, who will present a PowerPoint program about the lesser-known cemetery, including recognizing some of the civilians and a few soldiers buried in Evergreen.

In fact, she continued, “I have been known to give three-hour walking tours there visiting the civilians who had to endure the three days of conflict around their little town. It has just recently been published that the actual site of President Abraham Lincoln's 1863 Gettysburg Address is actually in Evergreen.”

Among those buried in Evergreen are Elizabeth Thorn, the cemetery caretaker's wife, and Jennie Wade.

Even though Thorn was six months pregnant at the time, “she buried the first 91 soldiers from the Battle in Evergreen, actually burying 105 soldiers in July and August,” Novotny said.

Prior to the late 1990s, the Evergreen Board of Directors was an all-male enclave but, with her involvement and persistence, Novotny was selected as one of two women to sit on the body. She was asked to sit on a committee to recognize Thorn's contribution, resulting in erecting a statue of her to honor her and other women who served at Gettysburg in various capacities. Novotny authored an article about Thorn for Gettysburg's 150th anniversary celebration last summer.

Wade, on the other hand, holds the distinction of being “the only civilian from the town of Gettysburg killed during the battle,” added Novotny, explaining that Wade was in her sister's house kneading dough when a bullet went through two doors and struck her, killing her. Novotny has since served as consultant on books about Wade.

Novotny laughs when reminded that she is surrounded by graves, either at the Gettysburg National Cemetery or Evergreen. In fact, she resides in an old Gettysburg schoolhouse where nine Confederate soldiers were buried shortly after the battle. Those soldiers' bodies were disinterred in 1971 and moved to Savannah, where, during a grave search, she was able to locate seven of the soldiers' burial sites.

Additionally, since she moved to Gettysburg, one of her hobbies has involved researching famous and not-so-famous historical persons' graves, resulting in a data base and collection of 50 file folders — one for each state — in which she and her students researched the burial sites of Gettysburg's top echelon officers of both the Union and Confederate armies at Gettysburg.

In fact, Novotny also has a “bucket list” to visit the graves of all the presidents. She needs only six visits to fill her bucket: Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan in California, Gerald Ford in Michigan, Teddy Roosevelt in New York, and John and John Quincy Adams in Quincy, Mass.

Novotny will meet Civil War enthusiasts in the University's Kara Alumni House at 7 p.m., with doors opening at 6:30 p.m. Questions should be directed to or by calling 724-258-3406.

Les Harvath is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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