Michigan Oral History Association, Part 2

The pre-conference continental breakfast started at 9 yesterday, so of course we showed up at 8:55. Geneva was again beyond thrilled to see us–it seemed like she wasn’t expecting us to come back.

Larry Massie, the keynote speaker, gave the first presentation of the day. He’s the author of 20 best-selling Michigan history books, including On The Road to Michigan’s Past, which my sister bought. He wrote a history for Western Michigan University and has been approached to write histories for hospitals and libraries as well. Larry told us that, though he almost never turns down a job offer even when he’s not interested in the subject matter, he’ll sometimes name a higher price than he thinks the institution will pay…and that 9 times out of 10, the institution will say, “Sure!” and make it worth his time.

Larry recorded multiple oral histories with John Fetzer, a radio and television exec who was best known as owner of the Detroit Tigers from 1961 through the early ’80s, before Fetzer’s death in 1991. Upon his death, Fetzer left $200 million to the study of the paranormal–his true passion. This foundation hired Larry because of his association with Fetzer. Larry told us a story about going to see a medium at Camp Chesterfield as part of his research, with a couple of his friends tagging along. The medium told one of his friends that his aunt Martha was there; the friend replied, “How do you know about Aunt Martha?!” Then the medium told Larry that the spirits of his father and grandfather, mother and grandmother were all present–and that Larry was going to fall in love with and marry a woman he met in the next three months. Larry’s eyes were twinkling as he informed us that, first of all, his mother is still very much alive, but second, and perhaps more importantly, his wife wasn’t thrilled to hear that he was going to fall in love with and marry someone else.

He also had a story about meeting one of Fetzer’s lifelong friends who was involved with building the Fetzer Institute. This man shared Fetzer’s belief in the paranormal: Before building the Institute, he’d had people come through to appease the spirits of the land. Apparently, though, at some point a path was bulldozed without appeasing a territorial troll who resided there. Larry played part of the tape of his interview with the man, who claimed that he had seen the troll. Listening to the tape, it became clear that Larry had had a hard time of taking the man’s story seriously, but that he’d forced himself to maintain decorum because he wanted to hear the story, his beliefs aside.

Throughout his presentation, it was obvious to me that Larry truly loves recording oral histories–traveling to obscure places, getting stories from people whose experiences would otherwise die with them. He advocated using tape recorders rather than digital means to capture oral histories. In his experience, tape recordings held up, but he voiced skepticism about how long digital recordings would be relevant.

Our second speaker, Terry Wooten, replaced a speaker who had backed out a few days prior. Terry calls himself a poet-bard–he uses the oral histories he records to write free-verse poetry. Interestingly, he’s dyslexic. Terry told us that he has over 500 poems committed to memory because he performs poetry live but has a hard time reading.

Although he’s not a degreed professional teacher, he calls himself an educator. He goes into schools and leads workshops on writing free-verse poetry from recorded oral histories. These workshops run for at least three days. On the first day, Terry talks to the kids–mostly in middle schools, though recently some in high schools also–about poetry, including introducing them to “power words.” He explains power words as words that paint a picture in the audience’s minds. The second day, elders from the community come in and are paired with students who interview them for about 45 minutes. The students then transcribe short sections of the material they think they’ll use in their poetry–Terry tells them to use the elders’ words alone to write. Then, on day three, the elders come back and record another 45-minute oral history to fill in any gaps left on the previous day.

Terry told us that he would be able to conduct better, more thorough oral histories than the students are capable of, but there’s a special energy and bond that happens between old folks and thirteen-year-olds. For example, there was a middle schooler named Jamie who interviewed a woman named Joanie. The two maintained a relationship after the workshop, through Jamie dropping out of high school, getting married, and becoming pregnant. They’re still in touch now–Joanie is invited to Jamie’s upcoming baby shower.

Terry also founded a group called Stone Circle. From what I can tell, the purpose of Stone Circle is to allow modern people to experience storytelling, poetry, and music in the same way that their ancestors did: sitting on stones, under the stars, around a campfire.

The stories that Terry told were the most moving of the day. His book Lifelines, A World War II Story of Survival and Love, for example, tells the story of a couple, Jack and Leda Miller, in their own words as expressed in Terry’s free-verse poems. Terry performed a number of poems for us, both his own creations and some written by kids who’d participated in his workshops. His performance style reminded me of poetry slams I attended in Ann Arbor some years ago. One of his published works was turned into a play that was performed by a number of schools across Michigan, and a book that’s coming out soon will also be turned into a play.

The next speaker was Mark Harvey, who’s worked in the State of Michigan Archives for over fourteen years and has been State Archivist for Michigan since 2005. From his job title, I had assumed that his position was boring, but during his presentation called “Michigan History is Alive and Well” he had unexpectedly dramatic, funny stories to tell.

One involved the 2009 foreclosure of Yamasaki & Associates, the architecture firm founded by architect Minoru Yamasaki, who’s probably best-known for designing the World Trade Center. After Minoru’s death in 1986, his company was headed by a string of relatively incompetent CEOs, ending with an entrepeneur who drove the company into the ground. Mark was given a heads-up from a Chicago architecture firm on a Monday that state officials in Michigan were planning to auction off all the furniture at Yamasaki on Tuesday and shred all of Yamasaki’s original drawings rather than have to deal with them. By Monday afternoon, Mark had convinced Michigan’s State Treasurer to allow him and his team of archivists to go through Yamasaki’s building ahead of the shredders to save important documents.

At that point, Mark decided to have both the State Treasurer and the soon-to-be ex-CEO of Yamasaki & Associates, Ted Ayoub, sign documents of donation so that the State Archives would be in the clear as far as possessing and showing any documents they found. The State Treasurer immediately signed and returned the document, but Ayoub wanted to meet Mark in person. Mark was supposed to be to Yamasaki & Associates at 8 on Tuesday morning, and Ayoub agreed to meet him in the Starbucks parking lot across the street at 7:30.

Mark was sitting in his car at 7:30 when a black Lexus with tinted windows pulled up beside him. The driver rolled the window down and motioned for Mark to do the same. Mark did, and the driver said, “Get in.” Mark only hesitated momentarily before getting in. The driver turned out to be Ayoub. He wanted Mark to talk to his lawyer-son on the phone before he agreed to sign the document of donation. Apparently Mark passed the son’s test because Ayoub signed with no further questions.

After Mark’s presentation came a round table on “Hot Tools in Oral History.” The main takeaways from that were: buy and use the best equipment you can afford; technology is always changing; and restoration of sub-par recordings can be cost-prohibitive. Three of the panelists were well-heeled professionals, but the fourth had been doing research for a sci-fi novel and sounded like every crazy conspiracy theorist I’ve ever heard. The combination of viewpoints was intriguing.

The conference ended with the attendees talking about our projects. There were only four of us–not including my sister, since she’s not involved in an oral history project–and the other three turned out to be from MSU’s Digital Rhetoric and Professional Writing program, i.e., the grad program I’m applying to shortly. One of the women, Andrea, is a doctoral candidate, but the other two, Trixie and Malea, are on the admissions board. They both gave me their cards and implored me to contact them if I had any questions. Needless to say, I’m ecstatic to have made that connection.

Following that, the conference wrapped up. I’m incredibly glad I went–the people I met, the stories they told, have given me a new perspective on the value of oral history. On that note, Dr. Stamps emailed me back about setting up an appointment to record with him; my next step is to call him and finalize arrangements.

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One thought on “Michigan Oral History Association, Part 2

  1. jmdembsey says:

    Wow, you had a lot to report on. The backgrounds on the speakers were interesting: I found Larry Massie’s experience with a medium quite funny.

    It’s really great that you made connections. They say most people, especially in this economy, get jobs and internships based more on who they know than anything else.

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