From the Teaching column of the March 2011 issue of Perspectives on History

The D.C. Everest Oral History Project

Paul Aleckson, March 2011

The Oral History Project at D. C. Everest Area Schools in Weston, Wisconsin, began in 1998 when a small group of social studies teachers received funding to conduct interviews with the area’s Hmong minority regarding their migration from Laos. These interviews were compiled into a small book to celebrate Wisconsin’s Sesquicentennial Celebration. (The Wisconsin Humanities Council provided funding for this initial project which has been the cornerstone for all of the oral history books that have followed.) Many of these stories told of the horrific conditions the Hmong went through to escape from their mountain homes to safety in Thailand.

We started a second oral history project when an article appeared in the Wausau Daily Herald, about World War II veterans. The article, entitled “War of Remembrance: World War II Veterans Dying at a Rate of 30,000 a Month,” described the high rate at which World War II veterans are dying. “One thousand die every day…most will be gone by the year 2008.” After reading that article, we knew that we needed to record the recollections of area World War II veterans. A book that resulted was very successful.

Next we focused our efforts on the Hmong veterans who had fought in the Secret Wars for Laos. The Hmong had assisted the CIA during the Vietnam War and suffered incredible casualties. We recorded their stories, and collected them into Hmong and Their Stories: Escape from Laos. This book and the previous Hmong book did much to promote a good relationship between the Hmong community and school district.

The fourth oral history project focused on the Vietnam War and was entitled Vietnam Experience: Stories of a Troubled Past. This collection contains over 80 interviews from local Vietnam veterans, antiwar protesters, as well as notable people such as Melvin Laird, former secretary of defense. After publishing books on World War II and Vietnam, we started receiving calls from Korean War veterans who said “What about Korea—everyone forgets about Korea…are you going to do a book on Korea?” We did a book on Korea that told of the “forgotten war” One student was able to interview his grandfather, Inner Ingman, who happened to be a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient. There are many stories from Korean War veterans who were so thankful that we didn’t forget them.

In 2001 the project was recognized nationally when we received a federal earmark ($35,000 of the earmark was for the oral history project) with the assistance of Congressman David Obey. One portion of this grant provided funding for an oral history project on the Great Depression and a second World War II project. Great Depression: Memories of Those Who Were Young is a collection of interviews from those who were children or teenagers during the Great Depression.

We had such an amazing response from World War II veterans after our first book and heard from so many area veterans that we had “missed” that we decided to do a second book. Both World War II books included the women who served on the Home front to assist in the war efforts. One student, Bethany, compiled and edited all of the letters her grandfather had sent to her grandmother while he was in the war. Another student, Steven, collected the photos his grandfather (an Associated Press photographer) had taken. These proved to be excellent learning experiences. Many other students interviewed their relatives who were in the war.

We returned to our roots in 2003 when we embarked on an interesting journey to collect stories from Hmong adolescents who are living between two cultures—the traditional Hmong culture their parents strongly promote and the modern American culture that surrounds them every day. Students wrote of being sometimes “torn” between following the beliefs of their parents and American ways of doing things. This project, along with the previous Hmong projects provided an automatic connection to new Hmong students. Teachers needed simply to hold the books up in class and explain the project and students felt an instant connection.

Our ninth project, Classics: A Look Back at the 1950s involved gathering recollections about the 1950s. Students learned about the 1950s in class and then conducted interviews. One student, Dave, commented, “I used to just think my grandma was this person that hummed all the time, now I view her as a real person, someone who is really interesting.”

Our tenth project, Local Voices: Stories of Wausau, Past and Present provides stories about the Wausau area and its political, social, and economic life. In addition, the book uncovered “stunt night” which was a phenomenon from the 1930s in which teachers and principals put on a stunt night for the community to raise money for the schools. From the book we learn also how Representative David Obey was helped by a nun, Sister Tekla, when he was a “confused and frustrated kid who skipped school twice a week and hated everything.”

Our next project almost didn’t happen because our project coordinator kept saying it couldn’t be done. But students were determined to collect stories about life in the 1920s by interviewing area residents over the age of 95! We gathered nearly 50 interviews. These covered national issues such as prohibition and women’s voting rights as well as local events.

Building on our “decades” series, the students wanted to interview parents and grandparents about life in the 1960s. Like the 1920s book, these interviews looked at a decade that was filled with upheaval and change. Listening to people who lived through the 1960s is so much more interesting than reading about the decade in a textbook.

In 2007 we decided to return again to the Hmong people to see how recent refugees from the Thailand camp called Wat Tham Krabok were adapting to the Wausau area. This resulted in a fourth Hmong book titled Looking Back, Stepping Forward: The Hmong People. In this book, it was not just adults who were important, but also younger students. They talked about their lives and experiences.

Our third book on World War II is entitled WWII: Stories of Courage. Students traveled to the King Veterans Home to interview people. One section of Stories of Courage focused on Holocaust survivors. Students contacted three children of the Holocaust and conducted phone interviews. Similar to our Hmong population, we have a significant Native American population in Wisconsin that lives in two cultures. The students were very excited to conduct what would be a three-year project interviewing members of all 11 Wisconsin Native Nations. The project and the book,  Native Nations of Wisconsin, was a new adventure for our students.

Initially, we encountered some hesitation and resistance. However, three years later we have were able to collect over 60 interviews. Weston Sesquicentennial: Staying Strong for 150 Years is a recent project that examines our own local history. In 2009 the Town of Weston was celebrating its 150th anniversary and asked the DCE oral history project to publish a short history of the community for the summer celebration. Ninth grade students completed interviews with a variety of community members that helped to explain some of the social, political, economic history of the community. The resulting books were made available for “Weston Fest” in 2009 and recently in 2010.

Over the past school year the students decided to focus on veterans again and this time wanted to examine the current conflict in Iraq. After receiving a generous grant from the Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee, the students created two projects, one book on Desert Storm, 1991, and one on the Iraq War. Both books are currently available and contain over 100 interviews of the most recent veterans. At present the students are working diligently to complete two ongoing projects, Wisconsin Women: Celebrating Their Contributions, and a collection of Hmong Children’s Stories (with illustrations). And soon the students will begin interviewing Holocaust survivors.

Value of the D.C. Everest Oral History Project

The purpose and value of the D.C. Everest Oral Histories Project is multifold. A listing below is just a few of the activities and experiences that bring value to our student’s lives. Because of the projects, students:

  • traveled around the state collecting interviews;

  • planned activities such as our pow wow and book receptions;

  • wrote a grant application and are planning a Civil War moving memorial wall;

  • see history as relevant and meaningful in their lives;

  • see connections to the larger world that are not apparent in the artificial classroom setting;

  • are learning the value of teamwork and the importance of getting along with fellow workers;

  • are learning how to work under pressure and meet deadlines;

  • are learning to use computer programs such as layout software (QuarkXpress) to display history;

  • are getting opportunities to speak about the project at local service clubs (Kiwanis, Rotary and Optimist Clubs)

  • published articles about the oral history project in local, state, and national publications (Wisconsin School Board News, Hmoob Magazine, Education Week, Intergenerational News and The Wausau Daily Herald);

  • appeared as guests on live radio programs (Appleton--Hmong Wisconsin Radio and Wisconsin Public Radio);

  • have been featured in a Wisconsin Public Television special on the Hmong book;

  • have made live appearances on Channel 7 & 9 TV stations;

  • have earned national service—learning awards and community awards such as the Hmong Mutual Association Award;

  • have had their interviews and writings read in a variety of places. Organizations such as UW-Green Bay, Kenosha Public Schools, Wausau Public Schools, ABC Hmong Bookstore in St. Paul, several ESL programs in the Twin Cities, and the Army Heritage Center in Carlisle, PA have purchased our oral histories in multiple quantities.

The D. C. Everest Oral History Process

First of all, the oral history project (OHP), is actually both an extracurricular club, and a program that is integrated directly into the curriculum. It is unique in that it involves students from grades 8–12 in collaborative projects. Projects are incorporated into the grade 8 U.S. History classes and into the American History Seminar class at the high school level. Students are also immersed in the project during the summer months when they sign up for the enrichment summer school course titled, OHP, of course!

The OHP project was actually an outgrowth of the National History Day program endorsed by the D. C. Everest Social Studies Department. Students were strongly encouraged to conduct oral interviews when gathering material for their History Day projects.

Doing oral history took on a life of its own. The actual oral history process is taught in either the English or social studies class at the 8th grade level and also in the high school seminar class. We rely heavily upon the Oral History Association for its guidelines.

Before students begin to conduct interviews they are required to completely immerse themselves in the topic during a unit in the History classes. To gain an understanding of the era, war or people, texts are chosen and read by students. For example, prior to conducting interviews on WWII, students read and discussed Stephen Ambrose’s book Band of Brothers. Students read Frederick Lewis’s book Only Yesterday, in Seminar class prior to doing interviews on the 1920’s. Indian Nations of Wisconsin, written by Patricia Loew was read before taking field trips to the Oneida, Menominee and Ho Chunk reservations. Once the students have been taught how to make phone contact, set up the interview and conduct an oral interview, they are then allowed to work in pairs and actually go to the interviewee’s home to conduct the interview. Some interviews are conducted at school, especially those done by junior high students. We originally used cassette recorders, but in the past two or three years we began to utilize the new digital audio recorders.

Although regular history classes provide OHP with the interviews, it is the after-school club that does all of the work to create the publication. Students varying in ages from 13–18 work collaboratively to plan and produce the project. We use QuarkXpress software and Adobe Photoshop to prepare digital text to be outsourced to our publisher, Rotographics, Inc., located in Wausau, Wisconsin. Students in the club are responsible for conducting interviews, transcribing interviews, editing interviews, working with photographs and using  computers to put interviews into the Quark software.

Students work hand in hand with the publisher to produce the final product. Usually 500–1,000 copies are printed in a softbound text of 300-600 pages. The club markets the books through their website www.dceoralhistory.com and by working with other marketing agencies like Maris, Inc. All book receipts are used in upcoming projects. Needless to say, without grant writing the project would not exist.

In January of 2010 The American Historical Association honored the D.C. Everest Oral History Project with the prestigious Beveridge Family Teaching Award. The generous honorarium presented to the project by the AHA and the Beveridge family went directly into the various ongoing oral history projects.

Paul Aleckson is social studies coordinator for the D.C. Everest Area Schools, in Weston, Wisconsin. The oral history project team that he leads received the AHA's Beveridge Family Teaching Prize for 2009.