Oak Park Senior Center project collects stories from its lunch bunch

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By Deb Quantock McCarey

Contributing reporter/Nature blogger

Last month, on the other side of the large picture window at 130 S. Oak Park Ave., eight ebullient co-authors — Thomas Murphy, Ed Mampre, Bob Maloney, Joyce Marco, Nancy Allen, Lillian Maylath, John Palmisano and Roy Heinekamp — signed newly-printed copies of SPREAD: Reflections on family, local history, friendships and the 20th Century for a queue of fans filling up the lunchroom of the new Senior Services facility in Oak Park.

Their inaugural "container" of remarkable real-life accounts and pictures was co-produced by the Stockyard Institute, an arts and pedagogical initiative in Chicago, and the volunteerism of two Oak Parkers, Celeste Duignan, manager of the Senior Lunch Program for Oak Park Township, and her spouse, Jim Duignan, founder and director of DePaul University's Stockyard Institute.

On board with them for this "Senior Writing Project" were two writing interns, Samantha Phelan and Mary Grace Detmer of Oak Park and River Forest High School, who meticulously transcribed each oral history from spoken word to printed page — verbatim, Celeste adds.

"I have been writing and collecting stories for years," says Jim, an associate professor of visual arts and secondary education in the School of Education at DePaul University. "It was kind of the lure of my family growing up, and now it is my preferred reading and has been a large part of my pedagogical structure at DePaul University. This first project had all of the kind of 'heavy lifting' in it because we had to figure things out, and afterwards used the book as an example of what we were doing. So it is not a Jim or Celeste Duignan project but rather a collective process we could facilitate, because we had the means to put together an anthology of stories. And that is really all we wanted to do — just for the people who walk into this lunch program."

Spreading the words

The genesis of SPREAD occurred at the Duignan home when Celeste began sharing the highlights of her work day with Jim.

"I would come home and say to Jim, I was walking by a table today in the dining room, and this gentleman said to me, 'I was at the Battle of the Bulge … when I was 18. I became an Eagle Scout and then I joined the military and World War II.' … So they do want to share [past experiences], and they do want to have a voice others can hear. For me, that is where it came together with Jim. He has spent many years trying to connect people with their voice, and here these people were screaming for it."

Convincing the lunchroom crowd to audiotape their oral histories for posterity, though, wasn't quick or easy, says Jim. It required patience, and early on he had to "camp out" for 90 minutes every Wednesday for six months in the lunchroom with them to gain their trust.

"I had to reassure them that I was not writing a story about their lives, but rather collecting their stories and putting them into a context," Jim recalls. "The start of this for me was that their voices were disappearing, and what could I do about it? Initially, I asked them for old photographs, because I figured they would talk around those images, so I could kind of pinpoint a story we could use in the book."

Preserving their past

What bubbled up over time were their collective memories from WWII, enough to fill the book, he says.

"A lot of the guys here were born in the middle of the 1920s, so World War II was a primary moment in their lives, and it still is," says Jim. "But I wanted to go back and get the stories that Celeste was talking about, like 'my aunt was a little girl who sat on Jane Addams' lap in that historic photo of Hull House.' I never had a grandfather, so listening to these guys go back and talk about things that happened in the early 20th century was great."

Celeste is still taken aback by some of the stories the lunch crowd shares with her. One of the guests described Civil War vets coming into their kindergarten class, which just amazed Celeste.

"Wrap your head around that," she says. This person said, 'I remember them marching into my class,' and I just thought, oh my goodness."

Post-book release party, the idea of creating a "SPREAD franchise," is certainly in the offing, as new submissions for the next go-round are already coming in.

"I knew that going into it," says Jim. "These things take time, and in all of the projects I have done, I know that the end point is a natural starting point. So whatever we do, it's easy to imagine another version, but every time is a new beginning and/or start with a new group."

For a free copy of SPREAD, contact Celeste at 708-383-8005 or cduignan@oakparktownship.org.

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KJ Phelan from Oak Park, IL  

Posted: June 27th, 2013 4:24 PM

Interesting project. I had a half brother 17 years my senior (I was six in 1941) who was in the army for all of WWII, in the European Theatre, battle of bulge, a 2nd Lt with the 33rd, et al. He died unreported and I regret not drawing it out of him. Am looking forward to the book.

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