HARRISONBURG — Philip Bigler has a story of his own, full of 23 years teaching, close-up experience with U.S. history and national recognition — all of which come together for his 10th book.
His newest book, “Tomb of the Unknown Soldier — A Century of Honor,” is a cumulative history of the famous war monument in Arlington National Cemetery to help celebrate the centenary of the monument, which was established in 1921. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a grave dedicated to an unnamed soldier who died in the First World War. Nearby are crypts of other unknown soldiers who died during the Second World War, Korean War and Vietnam War.
Bigler, a 1974 James Madison University graduate, has written 10 books over his career on subjects ranging from teaching tips to a biography of the only nurse killed in action during the Vietnam War.
Bigler taught history in various Fairfax County schools from 1975 until 1982 when he returned to school.
After graduating from a master’s program at the College of William and Mary, Bigler worked as the historian at the Arlington National Cemetery from 1983 to 1985, where he met many veterans, including the Tuskegee Airmen, the Navajo Code Talkers and those who fought in the Battle of the Bulge.
“It was just an amazing, amazing time,” he said at his home in Quicksburg. The experience helped him when writing his new book.
It is also where he met Kevin Donovan, a 19-year-old soldier assigned to the tomb at the time.
Donovan and Bigler still keep in contact, and a Donovan is supportive of Bigler’s new book, which aims to bring a clear history to the landmark.
“I’m sure the guys down at the tomb will be using it as a bible,” Donovan said.
Bigler was present for the internment of the unnamed soldier from the Vietnam War on May 28, 1984.
However, he was not at the cemetery for much longer, as he missed the classroom.
“In 1985, I’d decided to go back to teaching because I missed the interaction with students,” he said.
Bigler was named National Teacher of the Year in 1998 after teaching in Fairfax County Public Schools for more than a decade.
“To be national teacher of the year, you have to have done something right,” said Lee Congdon, one of Bigler’s JMU professors and friend.
In 2001, Bigler returned to JMU after he was selected to run the James Madison Center.
“It was kind of like returning home because I graduated from Madison in 1974,” he said.
The center was created to celebrate and inform the public and student body about James Madison, the namesake of the university, said Mike Davis, executive adviser to the president of JMU.
The center had speakers and organized events on holidays, such as Constitution Day and Madison’s birthday, Bigler said.
While at JMU, Bigler also taught in the history and education departments and continued to write and research.
For example, Bigler noticed the small amount of information available on the Madison’s wayward son, John Payne Todd.
Todd was an alcoholic who squandered the family fortune, and was primarily mentioned in footnotes, which didn’t sit well with Bigler, so he wrote a book on Todd.
“I hated the idea you would take a person’s life and reduce it to a sentence,” Bigler said.
Bigler retired from JMU in 2010, and the Madison Center closed shortly after. In 2017, the university established the James Madison Center for Civic Engagement, which focuses on getting students civically engaged, Davis said.
Bigler spends his retirement with his wife, Linda, reading and exercising. And, of course, writing.
When writing books, Bigler takes a simple but thorough approach.
“I think it’s really important to look back at original documents and original materials,” he said.
And accessing those original documents has gotten much easier with the advent of the internet, Bigler said.
He strives to turn this research into digestible information through his books.
“I’m a firm believer that history should be written as a story and should be interesting to read,” Bigler said.
Bigler’s “Tomb of the Unknown Soldier — A Century of Honor,” recently became available for purchase.