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Monday, May 2, 2016

Safety Net: All history is local; let's not let it slip away

Friday, June 15, 2007

Anita Wright has put her "Building the Vision" column to bed after 43 weeks of resurrecting tales from Marshall's aviation history.

I've heard rumors that some people think it's been too much, that we've devoted too much space on our editorial page to the dusty old clippings Wright, with help from Catherine Kennedy, dredged up.

Maybe. But I'm glad the column ran and think that Wright and Kennedy have done us all a great service. History is a matter that requires our attention and will, if we attend to it, capture our interest and prod our imaginations.

Thomas "Tip" O'Neill often is credited with saying, "All politics is local." The same might be said about history.

History is always relevant whether we're paying attention to it -- and often we're not. History is the explanation for if not the cause of events that are unfolding before our eyes. If we don't know what came before it's generally more difficult to make sense of what's happening now.

It's impossible to really understand the war in Iraq, for example, without knowing something about how World War I ended. It's impossible to understand the current tension between the U.S. and Iran without knowing about the 1953 coup in Iran engineered by the CIA at the behest of the British government on behalf of British Petroleum. If we don't study the politics of oil, much of what happens in our world is more baffling than it need be.

But those are Big Events that happened out in the world. They affect us here in Saline County because human societies are so interconnected that everything affects everybody in some way, however small. Just as a spider feels a tremor when something happens anywhere on its web, we feel the effects of far-flung events.

What we feel more acutely and are affected by more immediately, however, are events close to home. But it seems as though the more local the history the more difficult it is to see. There are books on local history, but they are not published and marketed by big book publishers and so are less visible, less accessible and probably much less familiar to most people than the books on big, dramatic global events.

And of course there are many important stories to tell that are in no book at all, the tales of people who once walked the same streets we all walk each day, whose lives may be over but whose influence remains.

For example, construction workers recently unearthed a small casket containing the remains of a dog. Local officials had assumed the property had never been used and were surprised to find old cisterns and building foundations, but they were more surprised to find the vault containing the dog.

You have to wonder about the animal and its owner. Marshall's signature legend, Jim the Wonder Dog, is familiar enough that we may not be surprised that someone would care enough about their pet to provide it the kind of burial usually reserved for human loved ones. But at first all we had was the remains and their resting place and our questions.

Then Virginia Sprigg took the time to write her recollections about a woman who once lived at the location where the dog was found.

"The corner house was the home of Mrs. Justice. Her home was a little larger than the one next door. It had a porch across the front of the house. The house sat close to the main city sidewalk. The porch was covered with vines and trellises making it an inviting place to site on a hot summer day. Mrs. Justice often sat on the porch with her dog at her feet.

"Everyone walked in those days. Mrs. Justice had the only Electric Car in town and would dress up in her Sunday best wearing a hat and drive up and down Arrow Street. She was a very stately woman. People assumed she had 'money' because of having this car. She was very friendly. I used to stop and talk with her when I walked to work. I always thought her home looked so inviting with all the flowers and shade trees. Mrs. Justice would have been the kind of person who valued everything and would have had the income to afford to bury her dog in such a way."

Sprigg's stories shed light where previously there were only dim shadows and guesses.

In April the Marshall Public Library hosted a visit from a mobile museum with displays about internment of civilians in the U.S. during World War II. Part of the event was a community forum facilitated by Marshall High School history teach Paul Gieringer and local historian Marvin Wilhite.

As fascinating as the museum was, the forum was more interesting still because it became an opportunity for people to remember and retell Saline County stories from the World War II era.

Gieringer recalled a student of his who had dragging his heels on an assignment that called for him to interview someone from a previous generation. The student was supposed to interview his grandfather, who had always been a grumpy so-and-so and he was intimidated by the prospect. But when the student finally managed to hear his grandfather's stories, he learned things that helped him understand his own family history.

The grandfather, it turned out, had been a welder stationed at Pearl Harbor. After the Japanese attack, it was his job to help cut bodies out of damaged ships. The smell of dirty diapers reminded him of the odors he experienced while doing that terrible task. That's why he didn't seem to like children. That's why he seemed to be a mean old man.

The story helped that student make sense of his grandfather's behavior. Sprigg's memories help make sense of a mysterious find. Evelyn Bailey's letter elsewhere on this page helps remind us of little Miami's rich history. Wright's columns help make sense of Marshall's neglected place in aviation history.

At the community forum Gieringer encouraged people to continue telling their stories, and I want to not only second that motion but add that we would be interested in considering them for publication. No one is expected to put in the kind of labor Wright and Kennedy did in order to participate. Just jot down your recollections and mail, e-mail or drop them by the newspaper office. Or call us and we'll send a reporter to talk with you.

It's a commonplace in our field to say that journalists are writing the first draft of history. But we don't need to stop there. We can help write the second and third drafts as well. Whatever we can do to help keep local history alive will help us all make better sense of our world.

And that's what we're here for.

Safety Net