County history comes to life

Interviews with longtime residents taped for posterity

August 24, 2007|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,special to the sun

John DuVall's roots in Howard County stretch back to the middle of the 1800s, when his great-great grandparents arrived from Germany as indentured servants and then started a dairy farm called Shady Oaks in what is now Elkridge.

DuVall's grandfather was the county's first deputy sheriff killed in the line of duty; his brother, Doug DuVall, has been coach of the Wilde Lake High School football team for 34 years.

In short, DuVall, 63, knows Howard County. And he was eager to tell his stories in a tape-recorded interview that is part of an oral history project called This Is Your Life.

On Wednesday, DuVall was interviewed at the East Columbia branch of the library by Paul Demmitt, a volunteer who has also been interviewed for the project.

This Is Your Life is being organized by the library, in partnership with the Columbia Archives and the Howard County Historical Society. The goal is to collect oral histories of county residents, particularly ones older than 50.

The library hopes to make the recordings, most of them about a half-hour long, available as part of the regular catalog, so when researchers search for information on Howard County or specific aspects of it, the relevant tapes will be listed next to other library materials.

Eventually, the tapes may be available as podcasts, so computer users can listen to the recordings from home, said Lois Sanders, who works at the East Columbia branch and is coordinating the interviews.

The project's modest cost -- for tape recorders, batteries and compact discs -- is being covered by Friends of Howard County Library, a nonprofit fundraising and advocacy group.

The library is copying the recordings onto CDs for the interviewees to keep.

Copies of the recordings also are being made available to the historical society, and the ones about Columbia are going to the Columbia Archives, said Sanders.

The idea for the project began with Kelli Shimabukuro, the library's community education and partnership coordinator. She had been learning about her own family history and recording interviews with her relatives, she said, since about 1999.

"So I kind of got into that whole thing, and I thought it might be something that other people would want to do," she said.

The 40th anniversary of Columbia, officially celebrated in June, provided a good launching point for the project. Since then, about 35 interviews have been conducted, Shimabukuro said, and more are planned. The project will continue for at least a year and probably longer, Sanders said.

Sanders said she hopes to add interview sites throughout the county, in library branches, senior centers and community centers. "Right now, they've just been held in Columbia," she said.

Interviewers like Demmitt are given lists of questions to ask, including ones about the subject's family life, when they moved to Howard County and how the county has changed. They are also free to take the conversation in logical directions. "If they say something interesting, if there's a follow-up question that's not on the list, I'll just ask it," he said.

Sitting in a small study room at the library, with two tape recorders running (one as backup), Demmitt asked DuVall if he remembered segregation (he did, noting that his 1961 Howard High graduating class was all white) and how the roads had changed (they were much less congested), among other things.

Demmitt, who is 58 and lives in Columbia, said he enjoys listening to other people's recollections. His own Howard County history begins in the mid-1950s, when his father bought a piece of land on Route 99 and built a house there.

Demmitt grew up in the county, and remembers being thrilled when Columbia was built. "I honestly thought it was the best thing that could happen to the county," he said.

Virginia Bates, 82, was also interviewed for This is Your Life. Bates had founded the Howard County Peace Action Community in the 1960s to protest the Vietnam War. She gave her "peace stuff" to the Columbia Archives, she said, and decided it would be interesting to tell her story.

Bates, who is originally from Staten Island, N.Y., has lived in Woodbine for 45 years. Like Demmitt, she welcomed the changes that Columbia brought to the formerly rural area. "People here didn't want a planned city," she said. "They thought there would be more crime, more traffic. But my husband and I were looking forward to it."

For his part, Demmitt plans to continue volunteering as an interviewer. "It's interesting hearing people's stories," he said. "Hearing them talk about stuff, it jogs my memory."

If you are interested in being interviewed for This is Your Life, contact Kelli Shimabukuro at 410-313-7763.

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