Students and Community Elders connect during oral history project

Posted on February 2, 2008

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The following is a slightly updated version of the story that appeared in last week’s Elk Rapids News. You’ll find lots more photos from the project on the Oral History Project Photo Page

The folks in the “class photo” are (back row) Glenn Neumann, Angelina Ledezma, Ruth Klein, Betty Beeby, project director Terry Wooten, Marjorie Kinery, Adam Schuler, volunteer Hanni Kuieck, Leonard Klein, (middle row) Marie Veliquette, Gabrielle Gualtiere, Emily Bowen, Margaret Fales, volunteer Vicki Fulkerson and (front row) Grace Cizma, Colleen Otte, Bridget Huhta, Katy Derks and Ashlee Marshall. 

EROHP - whole group

Last week a group of seventh and eighth grade girls from Cherryland Middle School spent a lot of time hanging out with men and women old enough to be their great-grandparents, collecting stories and new words (“What’s a streetcar?”), doing a little bonding.  Angelina Ledezma, Emily Bowen, Ashlee Marshall, Katy Derks, Bridget Huhta, Grace Cizma, Colleen Otte and Gabrielle Gualtiere were participants in an oral history project directed by poet Terry Wooten and sponsored by the Elk Rapids Area Historical Society.  They taped interviews with eight Community Elders, transcribed the conversations and crafted narrative poems from the material.  The tapes will be transferred to disks for the Historical Society archives, and the poems will be included in a new book Wooten will edit. 

On Monday the students practiced their skills by interviewing Wooten.  “Where did you go to school?”  (Marion.)  “Were you a good kid or a bad kid?”  (Both.) “Do you have any scars?”  (Yes, five, and each one has a story.)  Gradually they relaxed and gained confidence.  The next day they met the Elders: Marjorie Kinery, Margaret Fales, Adam Schuler, Marie Veliquette, Ruth Klein, Leonard Klein, Betty Beeby and Glenn Neumann.  Everyone was a little nervous at first, but they warmed to each other as the interviews proceeded.  Volunteers Hanni Kuieck and Vicki Fulkerson circulated, offering juice and coffee, helping to nudge memories.  Stories poured onto the tapes.

The second time he asked me I told him yes, I’d marry him . . .
I tell you, I’ve never eaten Spam since 1945 . . . 
We never had water in that house until I was an adult.  We had a two-holer . . .
I think there used to be more snow than there is now . . .
My father died when I was six . . .
On the farm we didn’t go to movies.  We did more going to the neighbors, playing cards . . .
The saddest thing?  Probably Pearl Harbor. I was in school at the time, and all the young men . . . it’s still very emotional for me, even now . . .
Going to college shows you a different way . . . 
World War II, then Korea, Viet Nam – I lived through all of those . . .
We used to go on sleigh rides for our birthdays . . .
One time my dad put up ice on Elk Lake.  We had the horses down there.  We were scraping the snow off the ice and the horses went through . . .
When I moved up here we had that gas explosion in Williamsburg . . .
He started the first brewery in Elk Rapids . . .
Both my mother and my father were telegraph operators. It was a good trade . . .
It was hard, but we didn’t know that.  We always had a roof over our heads and food on the table.  We thought it was normal to have these responsibilities . . .

By the end of the second day of taping students and Elders were trading hugs.  Betty Beeby gave an autographed copy of her book Great Granny’s Sturdy Stable Picnic Tables to each of the students.  Glenn Neumann, a former president of the Elk Rapids Area Historical Society, beamed as everyone assembled for a photo. 

The week ended with a writing workshop, where students learned to arrange the Elders’ own language into poems – a technique Wooten used in his books Lifelines and Child of War.  They’ll continue to polish their work, and it will eventually be included in a new book.  “A year or so from now you’ll all be published poets,” he told them.  “I think you’re the best group I’ve had.”