Historic books and magazine issues line the kitchen table of Gil and Helen Spencer on April 17.
Historic books and magazine issues line the kitchen table of Gil and Helen Spencer on April 17.
Michael LaRocca

‘If it isn’t remembered, it didn’t happen’ — a local club, a methodology and a message for the next generation

Just as the clock strikes 1:30 p.m. on a cool, spring Wednesday, a queue of older citizens files into the home of Gil and Helen Spencer in Hamden, Connecticut. An assortment of chairs fills the living room. Countless issues of Time magazine and the New Haven Register line the tables for anyone’s reading pleasure. 

Just half an hour later, the room comes alive with conversation and laughter, storytelling and celebration. Each corner carves out its little niche, discussing moments and memories from their mutual hometown. 

On the third Wednesday of every month, this is where that crew wants to be. They’re a little subgroup of the Hamden Historical Society, self-giving themselves the name Journey. Each month since 2012, they come together, usually in the rec room of the Miller Memorial Library on Dixwell Avenue, to dig up and share artifacts documenting different aspects of town history, ranging from railroads to the innovations of the fire department.

Meeting by meeting, this band works to keep history alive. 

The members of Journey meet in the rec room of the Miller Memorial Library on March 20. (Michael LaRocca)

“It helps knowing better where and who you are if you know where you came from,” said Jim Penna. “If you’re interested in history, it’s the personal touch, first-hand accounts, and even second-hand accounts that are really impressive to me.”

One member sits and listens, in awe of the stories he hears from his peers.

“I’m amazed by how much you all can recall,” says Phil Cronan. “I can’t even remember yesterday.”

Most meetings look like a loose practice of modern-day folklore, spreading stories of a community through purely word of mouth. 

However, there are some days when Journey takes a step beyond and chooses to immortalize the stories of its members, going from creating folklore to creating what some may see as oral histories. 

Oral history is the practice of gathering historical anecdotes, usually in the form of audio or video interviews, and preserving them either through physical playback methods or online in places like YouTube.

The practice was developed in the 1940s using wire and tape recorders. As the technology developed, it was discovered that it could be used to record the life experiences of everyone, whether they were literate or not. 

“There was a realization that oral history had this fascinating dimension, which is that you could now learn a lot and record a lot about the lives of people who normally wouldn’t have written their thoughts down,” said Norman Silber, professor of law at Hofstra University and a practicing oral historian.

It doesn’t just give the world another summary of an important event occurring on any given day in history, but the unique viewpoint of someone who lived through the day just like anyone else. 

“Look at oral history not as one photograph that was taken, but like a photograph that was taken from multiple different vantage points at different times,” said Ambar Johnson, graduate student at the Columbia Center for Oral History Research. “I look at it as more of an understanding of that person’s experience juxtaposed across many people’s experiences.”

Think of the story of the Sept. 11 attacks, but from the perspective of an air traffic controller in Nebraska, tasked with organizing the safe landing of the planes that were grounded. Oral history is a practice that can keep that person’s story alive, fully preserving the person’s emotions and nuanced memory. 

“There’s different levels of dimension that you’re able to glean from listening to an interview versus reading one,” Ambar Johnson said. “Or even watching an interview. You know, there are things like body language that you can see, you can hear how a person laughs.”

Journey’s November 2023 meeting happened to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. As a result, the group decided to each share the memories they have of Nov. 22, 1963, on video so that they can be preserved.

Courtesy of Dave Johnson

As elders of the community, the members of Journey recognize that great stories of the past can pass away with the people who are able to tell them. 

“My parents and everyone I grew up with’s parents lived through World War Two,” Hamden municipal historian Dave Johnson, 77, said on Nov. 30. “They all remembered Pearl Harbor, but they’re all gone now. We have no more first accounts of Pearl Harbor, only what’s been written down. So we have got to do this while we’re still around to tell about our experience.”

Dave Johnson specifically has strong opinions on the preservation of history.

“If it isn’t remembered, it didn’t happen.” 

Judyanne Cronan (left) and Dave Johnson (right) look over historic documents on April 17. (Michael LaRocca)

It is a phrase that can be impactful to younger generations that might learn to take history for granted due to its sheer accessibility on the internet in many different forms. Journey is not exclusive to older citizens. Oral histories are not required to be done on events that took place before the internet was invented. 

These are activities that can be practiced, even casually, at all ages. All it takes is for one person or child to take an interest in what came before them, and for someone to provide an outlet to act on that interest. 

“(Implementing oral history in school curriculums is) extraordinarily helpful in generating an understanding of the pastness of the past,” Silber said. “A kid doesn’t normally understand change, right? Historical change. So by making that personal, by getting somebody to interview somebody they know, right? They’re interviewing their father or their grandfather or their mother or their grandmother. By doing that, you help that student, that child, to appreciate growth and change over time.”

Some members of Journey see the overarching benefits of sharing their mutual interest in history with the younger generations. 

“I think intergenerational things are important, especially if someone has a grandchild,” Susan Hartley said. “I think it’s important for them to learn how their parents or grandparents grew up.”

However, others like Hartley might take part in the club for something a bit simpler, and maybe more important.

“Friendship,” she says. “It’s just a lot of fun to talk about historic things in Hamden.”

So while the oral historians of the world, like Silber and Ambar Johnson, dedicate their time to keeping stories and memories alive on a greater scale, these older citizens from New Haven County will stick to the small stuff, the stuff that matters to them. 

On the third Wednesday of every month in the Miller Memorial Library, Journey will be there. Sharing countless issues of Time magazine, the New Haven Register and whatever else they had in their home libraries. They’ll be there, keeping their memories alive.

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