Friday, November 16, 2012

Life is What You Make It...and It Makes History!

As an employee of the History Center, I’m privileged to see what goes on behind the scenes and to see documents that we have housed for research purposes. A blog post last year chronicled the work being done on Council of Defense documents from WWI and two of our volunteers are working on WWII’s pieces. As we began work on the latest issue of the Old Fort News, observations about the personal stories of African Americans and Germans in Fort Wayne during WWI were part of our conversations. You’ll be happy, or distressed depending upon your views, to know in this election year that some things never change.

But what has always been true is that it’s those personal stories that make history come to life. The idea for this post came from a story in my hometown newspaper. Check it out because it’s quite interesting.

This past summer, I spent a week in Nebraska, helping my mother sort through papers and other things that she and my father had accumulated over the course of 61 years of marriage. Since Dad is now in an Alzheimer’s Unit, we’ve tried to find some things that might spark a memory here and there, and so my sisters and I plus a niece and nephew, took a ride with him and a driver from the Kearney (NE) Volunteer Fire Department in a small fire truck he helped to build in the 1950s for the local department. The muscle memory was there—he still remembers how to drive—but his memories of being a volunteer fireman are gone.

We tried for a long time to get him to write down his life experiences—growing up in the depression and serving on an aircraft carrier in WWII that was sunk in the Battle of the Coral Sea. But, if he wrote anything down, we have yet to find it.

We did find, however, the story of his Uncle Benji, who was orphaned as a teenager and lied about his age to enlist in the Army during WWI. I remember as a kid getting our “family letter” and trying to decipher some of the worst handwriting ever imagined because his letters were wonderful. Fortunately, he had typed what he’d written about his time in France and his recuperation from being wounded as well as “gassed” during combat. A copy of those experiences now resides in the Genealogy Department of the Allen County Public Library.

This past month, my husband and I took a two-week journey to England to study one of his ancestors, Archbishop William Sancroft. Sancroft was Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral when the Great Fire of London occurred and is responsible for hiring Christopher Wren to rebuild the structure. He served at York Minster and Emmanuel College, where his library of close to 7000 volumes is kept under lock and key in a room where the temperature and lighting are designed to preserve the collection. We got a special look at the books—no photos were allowed—and in the process of the study I learned more about English history than I ever did in a history class. Sancroft was booted from the office of Archbishop when he would not support the monarchy of William and Mary, even though he had disagreed with the previous king about the role of Roman Catholicism in the country. He’s buried in the churchyard in Fressingfield, a small village in Suffolk.

As someone who has loved history since elementary school, and who continues to study it, I found at an early age that biographies, autobiographies, news stories and conversations are far more interesting ways to learn about events than memorizing presidents, dates and wars. You can “look up” that information. But it’s just a small piece of the puzzle of the past.

The Indiana Historical Society occasionally de-accessions books they own and offers these works to those who receive their Friday e-news “Communique on Line”. Last summer I asked for, and received, a copy of “My History Is America’s History: 15 Things You Can Do to Save American’s Stories”. The work was a millennium project of The National Endowment for the Humanities in partnership with the White House Millennium Council.

With the holidays coming up, and families gathering together, here are their suggestions for preserving your family history in a way that is meaningful. We’ll elaborate on these in future blog posts.

  1. Keep a journal
  2. Family recollections matter—preserve them
  3. Play detective with photographs
  4. Discover clues in family papers
  5. Uncover history in the attic
  6. Explore your home’s history
  7. Climb your family tree
  8. Find your family’s place in American history
  9. Write your own story
  10. Make studying history a fun family activity
  11. Share your story
  12. Connect with your community
  13. Use resources available to explore your history
  14. Teach American history through family history
  15. Join your hometown experts

That last one is THEIR idea but a perfect way to plug membership in the History Center. It’s a wonderful gift for your family. Join us today!

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