On a warm June afternoon, in a cozy, wood-paneled room at the River Forest Public Library, Glenbard East sophomore Kevin Mueller told the small audience he liked history, but he used to think there was a time and place for hearing other people’s life stories.
“I always had my grandparents ramble on,” he said, and would be thinking, “‘It’s Thanksgiving, let’s get to the turkey.'” But when he interviewed two area seniors last spring, Mueller was more concerned with the meat of their stories: advice about high school, discussions of contemporary American politics, and memories of the Great Depression and World War II.
He was one of approximately 18 area high school students who interviewed senior citizens and wrote shortened versions of the elders’ life histories for the Oak Park-River Forest Rotary Club’s oral history project.
Rotary recently embarked on a three-year campaign against illiteracy. The organization hopes to combat it locally by publishing the personal histories collected this past spring and using the book sales to fund literacy programs, including a children’s literature center at Dominican University.
Rotary Club President Werner Huget contacted Dominican’s dean of library science early this year about doing some sort of literacy event in Oak Park. The dean directed Huget to Dominican Professor Janice Del Negro, who proposed “doing something intergenerational,” Del Negro recalled. She and Huget decided to initiate a project as part of Rotary’s Oak Park Storytelling Festival, held this past June 17. Preparation started several months in advance, as Huget and other Rotary members (some of whom are teachers) sent out an all-points bulletin to area high schools: We need teenagers who will talk to older people.
“I for some time felt that in our Rotary Club, we were losing senior members with a lot of interesting experiences,” Huget said, “and that got me to thinking: As they passed away, their stories passed away with them. My thought was, “Let’s try and capture some of this history before it’s all gone.”
Huget also hoped the young people in the project might learn something by talking to the older folks. “And not just see them as old people,” he said, “but people who were young at one time and had dreams and visions and aspirations … and capture some aspects or some histories about how life was lived back in the olden days.”
After a number of students had been recruited, the teens attended a one-day training event in March where they listened to a professional storyteller share his personal history and learned interviewing techniques, including how to respond when a senior raises a particularly emotional topic. Then on several Saturdays in April and early May, the students showed up at Fenwick and Oak Park and River Forest high schools and the Senior Citizens’ Center at the Oak Park Arms to find two seniors (out of the 50 participating) and talk.
Mueller’s first interview was unusual on two counts: He brought along his friend Andy, with whom he had plans later in the day, and he spoke with Rotary President Huget. Mueller said the interview went “very well.” Huget, he said, “was like the grandfather figure-he’d ask about us just as much as we’d ask about him, and that seemed to make it like we were able to warm up to each other quickly.”
Mueller especially appreciated the older man’s advice about high school. “He said things like, ‘Yeah, high school’s a great time for learning, but you still have to take time out to hang out with your friends and chase girls,'” Mueller recalled. “It was kind of a funny conversation because this seems like the least likely person you’d have this conversation with.”
The three didn’t talk much about Huget’s early personal history though. “I started with random questions-‘How was it growing up? Where did you grow up?’-and it turned into political questions,” Mueller said, “like, ‘What do you think of politics nowadays?’ and ‘Do you support George Bush?'”
Huget was pleased with the exchange. “Kevin Mueller is a very smart young man,” he said, “and I got a lot of enjoyment out of talking to these young people. And I’ve got to tell you, it gives you a lot of hope for our country and our world when you have young people who really care a lot about what they do.”
With Mueller’s second interviewee, Ann Grimes, the conversation was generally focused on the politics of the past. He said he was “astonished” at Grimes’ eidetic memory. “She remembered when the United States declared war on Japan in World War II, she remembered the color of the couch she was sitting on, who she was with, what she was wearing,” Mueller noted. “I found that very, very impressive.” Yet when he began writing a synopsis of Grimes’ life history, Mueller focused on her “very interesting personal life.”
“This is the one thing that will forever stick out in my head,” Mueller said. “I’m sitting there and I’m like, ‘Okay, if you could change one thing about your entire life, something you did, somewhere you moved to, what would it be?’ and she said marrying her husband … and my first reaction was, ‘Why do you say that?’ And she backed it up very well with, he wasn’t a good provider.” Grimes’ feelings were understandable, Mueller said, because they had just spoken about her experiences during the Great Depression. “She had food to eat and a place to live, but it emotionally affected her because she had to walk down the street and see so many starving, homeless people,” he recounted. “She [felt guilty] about having just enough to get by when these people didn’t even have that much.”
But beyond these revelations about Grimes’ personal life, Mueller said the interviews were happily devoid of those tragic moments the teens had been prepared for: “I’m so unbelievably glad they didn’t. I’m the type of person that if I hear a sob story, I don’t want to hear about it because if they might cry, I might cry and it would be really awkward,” he said. “I’m afraid that if I got one of those subjects, I would just be like, [brightly] “Okay, let’s not talk about that then.”
Nico Marquez, a senior at Oak Park and River Forest High School, chose a different approach as his first interviewees, a married couple, discussed the husband’s first marriage, and his second interviewee talked about his daughter’s death. Marquez writes for the OPRF student newspaper and thus was no stranger to interviewing, but considering that he was speaking to older people about their personal lives, he was especially mindful of his interviewing technique. “I knew I’d have to be extra-respectful and … a little more polite,” Marquez said. “I kept-not a monotone face, but a concentrated persona to the whole thing, that I wasn’t [saying], ‘Oh my god!’ or ‘Tell me what’s next!’ That’s how we got through the death of Mr. [Bill] Southwick’s daughter and for the married couple, the first marriage of one of the partners.”
Of course, Marquez also asked about his seniors’ historical background: “I started with basic questions. ‘What was your childhood like, where were you born, what work did you do, what were your goals and work up to then?’ That’s what I was mostly interested in because obviously these people lived through times that were so significant.” Southwick, for example, studied in Edinburgh, Scotland and came to Chicago to work as a minister before becoming involved in the civil rights movement. “That was really the meat of it,” Marquez said, “his passion towards humanity.” Marquez also found in Southwick’s story the hopeful idea that “good people can go through quite a lot, but turn out all right and, if anything, stronger.” He admired Southwick’s work: “Striving for the betterment of people overall, that’s something I strive for,” Marquez said, “so that was really satisfying to hear about.”
But condensing all he had heard into three double-spaced pages per interview was a daunting task, not least because Marquez’s computer crashed, taking with it the drafts he had written shortly after each interview. “I guess it got deleted!” he said, dolefully. “But the only difficulty I had when writing it was how to sum up someone’s entire life-without somehow dulling the importance of what these people were saying.”
Marquez still has some time to re-write. Huget said there is no set date for the book’s publication, although the interviews and some photographs from the seniors’ lives should be compiled by next summer.
In the meantime, Mueller said, he will probably be more attentive to his older relatives at a certain family dinner: “This Thanksgiving, I’ll no longer be like, ‘I wonder when we’re going to eat.'”
Elmhurst College comes to the Arms
Doing justice to their senior’s story was a concern for Elmhurst College students, too, although the juniors and seniors in a capstone class for English Writing majors summarized their seniors’ life histories in papers a little longer than three pages.
Professor Mary Kay Mulvaney, who taught the memoir writing class, began the course by having her students read major works in the genre and write a bit about their own personal history. But, as Mulvaney observed, laughing, “All of these students were roughly 22 years old. They were seniors in college, so they didn’t have too many things to look back on! It would be interesting if they worked with people who have memories that are longer [and] more rich, in some ways.”
Mulvaney happened to have psychology professor friends who do research on memory among the elderly. They mentioned to her that they had been working with seniors at the Oak Park Arms-and the rest is history. The students were paired up and, after a group icebreaker, selected who they wanted to work with. This way of organizing the project worked out well, Mulvaney said: “The seniors felt special that these kids had picked them out, that they wanted to hear their particular story.”
Elmhurst graduate Melissa Allen interviewed Fred Czerwionka, a lifelong resident of Chicago who had served in World War II. “The reason I was drawn towards him is that when he started talking about it,? he got really emotional, she observed. He had a lot to say, and he hadn’t been able to say it.
“He grew up in Chicago to Polish parents. From what I understand, he was one of many children and grew up pretty poor. But he was telling us he could remember when Chicago had cobblestone streets and his family kept livestock in the backyard,” Allen recalled. “He also just talked about funny little things. … His family lived near a tobacco plant and [workers] would dump it off horse-drawn carriages into the back of this facility,” she said. “Because they were little kids, [Fred and his siblings] could reach their hands under [the carriages] and get some tobacco for their parents.”
“Once he started talking about the actual war, he just gushed information,” Allen said. The 1940s were a difficult time for the Czerwionkas: Fred’s brother-in-law was onboard a submarine that sank and the family didn’t know if he had died on impact or sank with the vessel.
“You could tell [Fred] was still dealing with it,” Allen said. “His brother was a chaplain and had a really close call as well-the guy standing next to him was shot.” Czerwionka himself was shot down while on a mission for the Army Air Corps, but walked away with minor injuries. “You can see that he knows he’s lucky, but he’s kind of guilty about that,” Allen said. “He did get really emotional. It was kind of hard to see, but I think it was really good for him and for us,” she noted. “He told us that he doesn’t normally cry, but he’s happy that he did.”
Like Mueller and Marquez in the Rotary-Dominican oral history project, Allen felt she had established a bond with her senior. The good feeling was apparently mutual. “We went one time to visit him on a Tuesday, and he brought us paczkis!” Allen exclaimed (referring to a jelly-filled donut-like Polish pastry pronounced “poonschkey.”) “He’s like, ‘I went to the bakery, I brought you guys paczkis!’ Ian [Allen’s partner] didn’t know what they were. [Fred]’s just adorable. He was really neat.”
Czerwionka was mostly open to questions about his military experience, but his use of Army jargon occasionally presented a problem during the interviews. “A lot of the times we would have to stop him because we didn’t know what he was talking about” Allen said. “He’d say, ‘Whaddaya mean you don’t know what I was talking about?’ so we used a lot of what he said verbatim.” Being able to quote Czerwionka extensively made it easier for Allen and her partner to complete the next phase of the memoir-writing class: composing Czerwionka’s memoirs in first-person.
Trying to write in another person’s voice was the most difficult part of the project for Elmhurst graduate Kristy Mikos. “It’s hard to make things up because you don’t want to put words in their mouth or write feelings that they don’t have, so I had to check with her a lot,” she said of her senior, Cyrille Pokras, who was too young to remember much of World War II, so after their initial meeting, she drew up a list of topics that the students could write about.
“She won a scholarship to Boston University because she won a writing contest. It was a good thing … but we felt we needed a little more background information, like, ‘Who is this character?'” Mikos said. “It got a little too personal for her-I was nervous about it because Cyrille was telling us at one point to make things up, to just write a fiction story because she didn’t feel comfortable talking about her life,” said Mikos before clarifying: “She felt comfortable talking about it to us, but she didn’t want a lot of people to read it.” But after reading what Mikos and her partner had written, Pokras even gave them permission to read an excerpt aloud at the class’s final meeting.
“The last time we met-it was kind of cute-the Oak Park Arms got a cake and everything and we each went around and read excerpts from our papers,” Allen said. She and her partner also presented Czerwionka with a copy of his life story, entitled, “The Life and Times of Fred.”
“The first thing he does is find a typo. That’s one thing he always said-that he was an English buff,” Allen said, embarrassed but laughing. “And it’s like, ‘Oh, God!’ But aside from the occasional spelling mistake, she felt Czerwionka liked their account of his life. “When I got to the point where he was shot down, he got a little teary, so I think we did a good job,” Allen said. “We really enjoyed spending time with him.”
That’s exactly the kind of reaction Prof. Mulvaney had hoped for. “The students learned about history, human relations, age. Many of them shared that at first they weren’t sure they were going to know how to react or what to say or do, but they generally got very comfortable with [the older people],” she said. “They were not concerned about grades; they were concerned that they were not going to be able to do justice to these peoples’ stories … for me, that was a really powerful thing.”