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FAU students build historical record with the living

FAU STUDENTS BUILD HISTORICAL RECORD WITH THE LIVING

By Kim McCoy
Staff Writer

May 6, 2001

Boca Raton - Caren Neile started the spring semester by spending countless hours leafing through documents at the Boca Raton Historical Society and reading books on the city's early history.

The research prepared her to conduct more than three hours of interviews with 86-year-old Pauline Aylward, who is the city's oldest living white native, according to the historical society.

Neile, a Florida Atlantic University student, recently completed her work for the school's first oral history class.

"People's voices are genuine - the most true account of experiences we can give," said Neile, who is working on a PH.D. in comparative studies. "Instead of my telling what I gathered, it's useful to have her say it. If you want to go back to a primary source, this is a good, strong primary."

Aylward told Neile about the days when Florida Atlantic University was just a big field residents called "the prairie." Aylward's uncle was a farm foreman and watched over workers who planted beans, tomatoes and other vegetables.

She grew up in a home on Dixie Highway, and remembers smelling coal-powered locomotives full of pineapples pass by her house at night.

Neile was among 12 graduate students and one undergraduate student in the class. The semester ended Friday. Their work on Florida pioneers, World War II and environmental history will be available to the community in mid-May. University officials hope to expand the archives building to make room for the oral history collection.

Heather Frazer, a professor, and the late John O'Sullivan, former chair of the history department, started the class at FAU after co-authoring We Have Just Begun Not to Fight. The pair spent 15 years collecting oral histories on 150 World War II pacifists. Their book, which includes 20 interviews, was published in 1995.

"We do so much in e-mail," Frazer said. "None of that is going to be kept. In the good old days we had George Washington writing letters to Martha. How many people do you know who keep diaries today? Personal recollections fill a void created by instant communication."

Neile said FAU has joined a small number of universities that offer the oral history course.

"It's becoming increasingly popular and accepted," she said. "Ours is one of the few in the country on a graduate level."

About 217 colleges and universities are members of the Oral History Association, an international resource center. But that doesn't mean they all offer a class.

The FAU course teaches students how to research and record oral history and how to teach the skills to others. Frazer said one of the most well-known gatherings of oral history happened during The Depression. The Works Progress Administration took accounts of former slaves.

For the course, Chuck Riley interviewed his neighbors - a married couple from Brevard county who met during World War II. He was fascinated by Albert and Mary Pont's stories.

"[Albert Pont] had rotated to Saipan to be part of the invasion of Japan prior to [the U.S.] dropping the atomic bomb," Riley said. "After peace treaties were signed, his unit became an occupation unit, instead of an invasion unit.

"Just the fact that he was there and flew in and out of Hiroshima - that was interesting to me," said Riley, who, in March, retired from an 18-year career in law enforcement.

Neile's interviews with Aylward made her look at early Boca Raton in a new light.

"Boca Raton was a place of enormous contradiction in the 1920s and 30s," Neile said. "On one hand, it was a very, very small town because everybody knew each other. By the same token, because of the hotel, incredible celebrities came to town.

The former Boca Raton Hotel is now the Boca Raton Resort & Club.

Aylward believes that her mother opened the city's first restaurant in the early 1920s. She doesn't think it had a name, but knows that it served home cooking, like mashed potatoes, roast beef and fried chicken. It was on the northeast corner or Palmetto Park Road and Dixie Highway.

Frazer said the class is time-consuming. A three or four-hour interview tape is about 100 transcribed pages. Donald Ritchie, oral historian for the U.S. Senate, and FAU history professors spoke to students about how they use oral history in their fields. Students learned interviewing techniques and ethical and legal issues as well.

The class probably will be offering during the 2002-2003 school year.

"Students did an amazingly good job of establishing rapport and really sharing, in some cases, poignant and personal things," Frazer said.

To access the oral history collection, call the history department at (561) 297-3840.

Copyright © 2001, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

(webpage by Deborah Butler of Lighthouse Ministries)

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