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Taking lessons in living history

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NEIL W. JOHNSON
May 21, 2010
— At the Gathering Place on Thursday, it wasn't just preaching about the old days.

It was interviewing and remembering. It was documentation of local history.


More than 70 Milton High School juniors took part in hour-long interviews of local senior citizens in a class history project focusing on local and personal history.


The project, in its fourth year at the high school, involves students recording interviews of dozens of area senior citizens.


Students will archive the interviews, where they'll be saved as local history documents on a computer system at the Milton Historical Society, project organizers said.


In an interview, Frank Vickerman, 75, a Milton native and retired Wisconsin State Patrol officer, told students how, at age 17, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy and rode west on a "troop train" from Milwaukee to a naval base at San Diego, Calif. It was December 1952.


"It was 20 below zero when we left Milwaukee … you saw the climate change … you saw how big the country is. It was fantastic. California was just so hot," Vickerman recalled.


Student Nick Farley said he was impressed by Vickerman's life history.


"It was all firsthand, so much more descriptive than a class lesson. It was real stories," Farley said.


That's the point, said Milton High School history teacher Ryan Neuenschwander, one of the project's coordinators.


"I plan on using some of these stories in class to localize history. How did the Great Depression affect Milton, Wisconsin? That's way cooler than reading about it in a textbook," he said.


For seniors, the interviews were a treat.


"I hope the students got a big kick out of talking to us old duffers. I sure was impressed by them," said retired civil engineer Walter Kevern, 86, of Janesville.


Kevern showed students a photo of himself chatting with Ronald Reagan at a 1975 Lions Club convention in San Francisco.


At the time, Reagan, the nation's 40th president, was Governor of California. But Reagan had spent most of his youth in Dixon, Ill., where Kevern and his wife, Esther, lived before moving to Janesville three years ago.


Esther, 90, was a firecracker at the interviews. A former teacher in Dixon, she turned the tables and started interviewing students.


"They were asking all the usual questions," Esther said. "I wanted to give them something interesting, a real treat."


Esther asked students if they knew what streetcars were, and she didn't wait for an answer. She rattled off a quick lesson about how her hometown of Freeport, Ill., had electric streetcars until 1935. Esther said she remembered riding the cars to the city's downtown shops on weekend afternoons.


Alyshia Fry, a student who interviewed Kevern, reflected on how Thursday's interviews will help preserve local history in its most ethereal form: personal memory.


"How many people (Esther's) age have that kind of a memory?" Fry said.


"She can tell you stories on the drop of a dime. That's rare."



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