By Devin Corbitt, The Belton Journal
It all started with an idea and the determination of two men. The combined brains of Dennis Turk and Jay Taggart brought about a project that has become bigger than either imagined: the chronicle of Bell County’s past through oral history.
“They’re the genesis of this,” said David Jones. “Three years ago, Dennis and Jay said, ‘Let’s do oral history.’ And they have given so much back.”
Since that time, the Belton Senior Activity Center and Texas A&M University Central Texas (TAMUCT) have come together to set a framework for this project, whose goal is to preserve as much first-hand history as possible before it is lost forever.
“We want the history of the people, regardless of race, gender, socioeconomic class so we can capture this,” Dr. Lisa Bunkowski, Assistant Professor of History at A&M Central Texas, said. “We want people to step forward and help us in our efforts to capture and preserve this, and we want people to say, ‘We have something to share that needs to be part of this record.’ It’s a never-ending project.”
According to the people in charge of the project, everyone has a story to tell, and they want that story.
“We don’t want just the big names; we want the broad history,” said David Jones, a member of the Senior Center board. “I always dream big, but I’m thinking thousands over time.”
Participants will have the opportunity to share their life story, either from the comfort of their own home or at another location. Topics range from the Great Depression to the Vietnam War to everyday life.
“We’re not expecting a specific answer because an oral history is a primary source telling their story of what they experienced,” Lowe said. “We’re looking mostly at senior citizens; we’re trying to capture the experiences of them in Belton or Bell County. We’ve interviewed men, women, soldiers, retirees, but we’re looking to interview more. The interviews are purely voluntary.”
And it won’t be just anyone conducting the interviews. Interviewers will be professionals, certified through a national program.
“All interviewers have to go through a process to get certified by the National Institute of Health to learn the methodology and the ethics,” Dr. Allen Lowe, an adjunct professor at A&M Central Texas, said. “Before a person can go out and do any interviews, they have to be certified.”
And speaking of interviewers, the program currently only has four, and more are needed.
“It’s not hard to get involved,” said interviewer Billy Laxton. “You’ve just got to be willing. There’s plenty of room on the wagon.”
The only prerequisites, according to members of the project, are a way with people and a love for history.
“Not just anybody can come in here because they want to,” Hutchinson said. “But at the same time, it’s not difficult. If you can be polite, courteous and understanding, then you could absolutely sit down and do this if you have the desire to do so.”
Of course, all this takes money.
“Every transcript costs money,” Jones said. “We do have to pay for that, and we are a 501c(3), so we don’t have unlimited funds. This organization is run by the Belton Area Citizens for Seniors, not the city, and we run on donations.”
The project will take a material form in two ways. The first is through stories crafted by Lowe from the transcripts. The second is an archive of both the transcripts and the audio files that will be available to the public online.
“Something I’m working on at the university is an archive that’s accessible to the public,” Bunkowski said. “We want people to step forward and help us in our efforts to capture and preserve this, and we want people to say, ‘We have something to share that needs to be part of this record.’”
But the most important part of this project is not just the interviewers or just the interviewees. It’s the collaboration between community and organizations.
“We’re at the point now of going public,” Jones said. “We have the framework in place to build on a vision. This is not a close-ended project. It doesn’t belong to the Senior Center, but somebody had to start somewhere. We want to bring in the Bell County Historical Society, the Bell County Museum, lots of people and be very inclusive.”
Included in this collaboration is Baylor University.
“We owe a debt to Baylor’s Institute for Oral History,” Bunkowski said. “They were very supportive of us getting our courses started and our whole process of how we conduct interviews, the things we emphasize, the type of materials we use for training. That regional association has been very helpful. Steve Sloan is the director of their institute, and what I really value about him and the Institute for Oral History is what we’ve been trying to emphasize here: it’s very collaborative.”
For more information on becoming an interviewer, being interviewed, donating money to the project or just helping in general, contact David Jones at (254)718-2221.