Oral History: Stories from the Past

Oral History:
Stories from the Past

By Lynn Mellis Worthington 

Capturing historical remembrances through individuals is a program that is alive and well at the Kent Historical Society thanks to the work of a group of dedicated volunteers.

During the past year, the Society has enlisted the efforts of teenagers to conduct oral history interviews of the town’s residents and these are being recorded and catalogued as part of the collections preserved. A group of students at South Kent School were able to learn a bit about local history through the eyes of four long-time residents by conducting oral history interviews. This summer, resident Claire Lee, who is a senior at The Gunnery, also assisted with the Oral History program.

The SKS students are part of a new class, Oral History, which is offered by instructor Max Pfeffer through the school’s Center for Innovation. They worked in teams of two to interview Kent residents Marie Camp, Noble Richards and Andy Ocif in the fall of 2015.  

Their project was done in cooperation with the Kent Historical Society and they went through training similar to what all of the Society’s Oral History Committee volunteers have experienced. In the spring, Willard “Wink” Lampe was interviewed by a new group of students.

Pfeffer came up with the idea for the innovative class with guidance from Head of School Andrew Vadnais, who has a deep interest in history, including a bachelor’s degree in history from Williams College and experience working at the Hancock Shaker Village, where he is currently a member of the Board of Trustees.

“I wanted the students in The Oral History of Kent class to gain an appreciation for their greater community,” Pfeffer said. “The town of Kent has such a rich past, and as students with such busy schedules, it can be easy for them to solely focus their attention on the smaller, South Kent community where they live. Having the students help preserve that history by interviewing longtime residents of Kent is a way for them to not only learn the importance of the town itself, but to also give them the opportunity to build relationships with off-campus residents.”

The students learned about interviewing people and what questions work best to draw out stories and they completed practice interviews of adults on campus. They also compiled questions before meeting with the person they were assigned to interview.

Loren Brill from Maryland was a post-graduate student at South Kent and he interviewed long-time faculty member Noble Richards, who retired in 1996. His interview partner was Nicholas Washington, a senior from Puerto Rico. Richards has stayed closely connected to the school and he is a Kent native with deep roots in town.

Brill said he enjoyed doing the interview with Richards. It was something he had never done before.

“I found a different skill that I can use in my life and I also found how rich South Kent history is,” Brill said.  He enjoyed learning about how some of the traditions, such as reciting the prologue of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, began at the school.

Brill said he was surprised by how much preparation was involved in planning for an hour interview, as well as how time consuming and difficult it was to transcribe an interview. He and his partner got about three-quarters of the way through the task and ran out of time.

Pfeffer plans to continue his class and he enjoys what the students get out of the course. “Aside from learning the excellent skill of communication through interviews and transcription, my hope is that my students were able to garner new perspectives on life, having spoken to members of the community who’ve lived such full lives of their own,” he said. “I also hope that as my students continue on their own journeys, that they’ll take time to think about how their own pasts have impacted their present.”

The Oral History program at the Kent Historical Society has been collecting stories of Kent residents for many decades. Former trustee Charlotte Lindsey spearheaded organizing a group of volunteers that conducted many interviews recorded from 2009 to 2014.

The Society has 51 interviews that have been recorded in one form or another. Some of these are written and others have video and/or audio. We recently purchased equipment to transfer some of the analog recordings to a digital format that will make them easier to use and listen to.

We are considering different ways to use the recordings and the remembrances. Everything that is collected could always be useful in a future exhibit because oral histories capture what people remember about living in our town.

One of our most active volunteers is Ky Anderson and she has met with many people and encouraged them to talk about their memories of Kent.

It is especially important to meet with our town’s oldest residents and we feel fortunate to have met previously with and recorded the memories of people such as Marie Camp, Bill and Charlotte Newton, Gene Bull and others who have passed away and played such an important part in the town’s history.

Anyone who would like to become trained and learn how to conduct the oral history interviews is welcome. Contact Lynn Mellis Worthington (worthingtonl@kenthistoricalsociety.org) or our general volunteer email address, volunteer@kenthistoricalsociety.org as we are always looking for interested volunteers to assist.