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Thankful for Tradition: my mom Joan, son John, and Studs Terkel

This Thanksgiving I’m thankful for tradition.

Joan was a great interviewer.  She grew up to be, after all, an oral historian.  Even when she wasn’t working professionally, she managed to get information out of everyone.  My brothers and I joked she worked for the MBI:  The Morrison Bureau of Investigation.  I think she was so easy to talk to and open up to because she was genuinely interested in people’s perspectives.  She didn’t want to impose her view of the world on others, but wanted to get the conception of life other people had.

Her work as an interviewer began early.  At Lakeview High, she was a reporter for the school newspaper, the Midway.

Friday, November 4, 1938

Hello! Well—guess what? We studied bread mold today—just before lunch too. It’s all gushy and green and full of spores and reproduction and all (biology is so indelicate).

Then I’m supposed to ask the leading boys of the school what their ideal girl is in life for “Vox Pop” next week. You know, I run the “Inquiring Reporter” column in the Midway—every week—four weeks so far. Some of the columns are pretty cute. This week was the “ideal girl.” In connection with my column, I asked Orville (him with the mustache) if he was a leading boy—he looked so embarrassed and modest and all, but he’s on the track team.

Orville blushing.

Orville blushing.

Then at U-High she continued her reporter work:

Sunday, February 5, 1939

. . . Church this morning. Did I tell you I’ve been wearing my hair page boy?

Page boy hair.

Page boy hair.

Today I didn’t however—wore it pretty and fluffed over my face, and with my green knitted hat I looked sorta cute.

Fluffy hair.

Fluffy hair.

Of course I wear rouge nowadays and a horrid but glamorous orangey lipstick that matches the yarn flowers on my brown sweater.

Took communion today but my conscience bothered me—I’m not sure what I think nowadays and there’s no use being hypocritical. (Anyhow, I was hungry).

. . . Friday I had a horrid Iliad test. A “well-greaved man” is one with good leg armor as I discovered (and rightly!) by the process of elimination. They hadn’t invented chain mail then, had they?

Jim Alter had been ribbing Barbara, the other third page editor, for using both “Aunt Polly” and “Inquiring Reporter” on the page for her week (space fillers). So I just laughed and laughed on Friday because, next week being his page:

He: “Oh Joan—wait a minute!” Comes up to me and begins to walk up hall with me, muttering incoherently.

Me (brightly): “Yes?”

He: “Gurgle, gurgle.” We finally reached girls’ locker room and I waited for him to speak. Finally: “Could you have both ‘Aunt Polly’ and ‘Inquiring Reporter’ columns next week?”

Me: “Oh—oh, yes, of course—” (smirk, smirk).

He (dashing away): “Gurgle!”[1]

[1] The 1940 yearbook, The Correlator, comments, “Feature editor Joan Wehlen suffered most, for there was seldom enough space for her excellent material.”

Once she was a grown woman with three children, she became an oral historian, eventually publishing two books and teaching at the New School in New York City.  One of the trailblazers in the field who inspired her was Studs Terkel.

Studs Terkel

Studs Terkel

From Chicago like Joan, Studs Terkel had a radio show and wrote numerous oral histories, most notably The Good War and Hard Times.

Last year my son, John, in his 8th grade Social Studies class had a Studs Terkel project.  They had to choose from a list of Terkel’s interviewees, edit the transcript, and perform a 60 second version of the interview.  What a super project!  Characters ranged from Frank Wills, “An honest guard who uncovered the Watergate Scandal,”

Frank Willis

Frank Willis

to Dolores Dante, “A waitress who worked in the same restaurant for 23 years.”

There was some cross-dressing going on:  girls played males, boys played females.  All the kids did a great job.

John was moved by the story of Florence Reese, “A tough 79-year-old Southern grandma who lives in her past.”  John did a super job with costume and accent portraying this amazing and groundbreaking trailblazer in civil rights for miners.

Florence Reese

Florence Reese

As John writes in his analysis of Mrs. Reece, “Well the first obvious thing I noticed was that she was old. She grew up in a very poor town with very little education evident by not the best grammar and her flat out saying that there was no high school. In most mining towns the distribution of wealth is extreme with the workers, which makes up most of the town, earning very little and the mine owners earning a lot and since she was a miner’s daughter she was on the lesser end of the distribution. She was poor. She is clearly very liberal. Most of the story is about unionizing the workers of America which is a liberal stance on things and that you shouldn’t drown the poor first just because they are poor.”

John as Florence Reese

John as Florence Reese

This is John’s “Costume plan:  I will wear my mother’s blue dress and grey/red shawl a scarf around my head to cover up my hair and to make me look like a babushka, even though I am from Tennessee, it makes me look older. I will also wear my mother’s slippers.”

John as Florence Reese

John as Florence Reese

I’m so glad the tradition continues of oral history in our family.  Maybe John will want to interview you someday!

John as Florence Reese

John as Florence Reese

The Interviewer’s Perspective

My mother, Joan, grew up to be an interviewer of many people.  As an oral historian, your sources are people.  People of all walks and stations in life.

Alistair Cooke, the great broadcaster and reporter

Alistair Cooke, the great broadcaster and reporter

Her two co-written books contain dozens of moving stories of everyday people — and some famous like Alistair Cooke, John Lewis

John Lewis, U. S. Representative and Civil Rights Activitist

John Lewis, U. S. Representative and Civil Rights Activitist

and Jerry Rubin.

Rubin speaking at the University at Buffalo in March 1970

Rubin speaking at the University at Buffalo in March 1970

In high school, I remember she and my dad would sometimes take me out of classes early.  We’d drive into New York City so Mom could interview Pauline Newman, who survived the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911 and grew up to be a famous union organizer with the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union.  Other times we drove in so she could interview other sources for her book.  While she interviewed, my dad and I saw double features of old movies from the 1930s and 1940s at art houses like the Little Carnegie Playhouse, the Thalia, or Bleeker Street Cinema.  Afterwards, we’d meet my mom and eat at the now defunct Copenhagen restaurant for herring and smorgasbord or pasta at Minetta Tavern in the Village.

logoJoan’s interviewing skills started in high school when she ran the Vox Populi (Voice of the People) column for the school newspaper.

Monday, November 14, 1938

. . . After lunch I went to teachers’ lunchroom to ask questions for “Vox Pop”—“What’s your idea of an ideal pupil?”—teachers all male. Mr. Heaton says one who brings apples every morning. I shall remember that sometime. Mr. Trumpell asked me if I wrote the column every week—he said he got a kick out of it—especially my terse remarks, says he. (I looked up “terse” in the dictionary; it means, “elegantly and forcefully concise”—that’s me!). . . . I had to get my picture taken for Cosmopolites[1] today. Sorta sickly smile on face of all.

[1] Evidently a club for those who are cosmopolitan.

November 14, 1938.  Doodle by Joan of her class and teacher laughing at her trying to find Volume 1 (not 2) of Thucydides.  She has lost a tooth.

November 14, 1938

This interview has unexpected — or perhaps not! — consequences!

Monday, November 21, 1938

And then today—oh, today was a lovely day. In the morning from the L, the world was real and tangible in the bright air and the sunlight. Then when I got to school (one minute on time), the boy behind me started to tell me how what Mr. Heaton said for my column brought results—You know for his “ideal pupil,” he said one who brings apples every day. Well, it seemed every one in the school took the hint, for there was Mr. H. with apples, apples, apples of all kinds on his desk—big, little, even one with a ribbon on it. Well, it proves someone reads the column, as my editor cynically said. In the middle of the class during organization paper writing, Mr. Heaton came up to me and said, “Well, I suppose you want your share of the loot.” And I said, “Oh, of course! I expect my commission.” And he grinned and said to take my pick. So at lunchtime Bobby Smith and I went up and took some big red apples while Mr. Heaton grinned (he’s so cute!) and Richard Schindler looked puzzled. As I explained, it will stop the Depression—fruit stores sell more, pupils get A’s, Mr. Heaton gets fat and I get my commission.

Once she starts at sophisticated U-High (connected to the University of Chicago), interviewing is not exactly what she expected.

November 9, 1938

November 9, 1938

Wednesday, November 9, 1938

I got to school early this morning. . . . I planted myself in front hall and pounced on everyone who came in saying, “Describe your ideal U-High girl” . . . One of them wanted a “glamorous blonde with a slinky walk.” Hmmmm.

I think my mom found that boy quite amusing!

November 14, 1938. Doodle by Joan of her class and teacher laughing at her trying to find Volume 1 (not 2) of Thucydides. She has lost a tooth.

November 14, 1938. Doodle by Joan of her class and teacher laughing at her trying to find Volume 1 (not 2) of Thucydides. She has lost a tooth.

Speaking of interviews, I’ve had the good fortune to have been interviewed by lovely people since Home Front Girl came out.

Trilla Pando’s lovely review of Home Front Girl came out a while back. But I just came across Trilla’s blog describing how she got into reading it. It’s really fun!

“[B]eing a reviewer for Story Circle Book brought me just what I needed! Home Front Girl: A Diary of Love, Literature, and Growing Up in Wartime America appeared at the front door as if on cue. I’ve been journaller about as long as I can remember. A one-year diary showed up under the Christmas tree every year with the same dependability as the doll at top of the red stocking, and continued even after the dolls went away. I made my most recent entry this morning. Part of my life. I was ready, ready for this book.

Joan Wehlen Morrison was a greater journaller than I. What’s more, while I assume “no one’s ever going to care about these” and store them helter-skelter and here-and-there, Joan wrote thinking that her journals would be read, stored them carefully, and made sure her writer daughter knew where they were.  That daughter, Susan Morrison has turned these journals into a story of both her mother’s life from when she turned 14 in December of 1936 to 1943 when she met her future husband of 66 years. But Morrison has done more. She’s captured a slice, a small slice but an important one, of American history. This is an important book.
Trilla's copy--she writes, "Well read now, and I'll be reading it again."

Trilla’s copy; she writes, “Well read now, and I’ll be reading it again.”

And inspirational to me. My next get-organized is not going to be the mess under the kitchen counter that’s on the schedule now. No. I’m going to take those boxes of disorganized mixed-up journals and diaries and get them in chronological order, and then, I’m going to read them.  It may be that some do indeed need discarding—I’ll do it now, and I’ll be the one to do it. But others I’ll keep and who know, while likely they will never be published, someday great or great-great grandchild may enjoy knowing what twentieth-century life was like in the Panhandle of Texas.

            Thank you Morrisons.”

And thank you, Trilla!

A Visit to Joan’s High School: U-High (Chicago Laboratory Schools)

Not only did I get to meet my publishers at Chicago Review Press in Chicago, but I also got to visit and teach at my mother’s high school:  the place she calls “U-High” in her diaries — the place now usually referred to as the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools (K-12).

I first got to teach two classes of U. S. History.  The teacher and head of the History Department, Charles Branham, was so gracious and fun.  I imagine his classes are filled with wonderment and pizzazz!  They assured me that Joan’s $300 scholarship, that enabled her to attend the school in the fall of 1938, would have to be much larger today!

Here is lovely U-High!

Here is lovely U-High!

Then I spoke to a huge lunch crowd.  It seemed that in addition to the principal, Chris Janus, there were at least 50 students there!  They were good sports and laughed at all of my mom’s jokes.  And they asked good questions.

Finally I had a wonderful time in the classes of a kindred spirit, Cindy Jurisson.  The first class we focused on Medieval Women (one of my teaching specialties). Cindy had trained her students to take excellent, thorough notes and they had already covered a lot of ancient women writers and women’s history.  The next class focused on Home Front Girl.

Students were very happy to join in the spirit of Joan’s hi-jinks.  There is one fun “dialogue” in the diary that seems almost like a play. A male friend, Frazier, and Joan are walking down the hall together in early 1939.

He: “Do you believe in heaven and hell, Joan?”

I (overcome by conservation of matter): “No, I’m afraid I don’t. I suppose that disagrees with you?”

He: “No, it doesn’t. That’s good. I don’t either. What do you believe in?”

Me: “Oh, I don’t know—conservation of matter right now. It’s awfully compelling.”

He: “Yes, it is. I guess I believe in that, too. But doesn’t that disprove immortality?”

I: “Oh, I don’t know. It means we’ll live again in flowers, doesn’t it?”

He: “Yes . . . Mr. Mayfield (Bio Sci teacher) makes it all so personal, doesn’t he? . . . You know—I wanted to be cremated.”

I: “Oh, do you? I used to want to, too, but now it seems as though I’d be cheating the Earth . . . you know.”

He: “Yes, I know.”

I: “I did want to be cremated, but now I feel a sort of duty toward the Earth . . . Of course it seems awful to rot away in the . . .”

He: “Yes . . . but I suppose . . . I saw a cremation once!”

Me: “Oh—what was it like?” (I wanted to asked how it smelled, but he thinks I’m crude as it is.)

He: “Oh, it was behind a glass wall and it shriveled up and . . .”

I: “Oh—Oh!” (thinking rotting in the cool sweet earth is more natural)

He: “And then . . ..”

And so we reached the locker room and I staggered to Modern Dance.

Here I am with one of the wonderful students–he was willing to play “Frazier” and I was “Joan.”  It was really funny!

Here we are as Frazier and Joan.

Here we are as Frazier and Joan.

More hi-jinks!

More hi-jinks!

I hope we can have an encore performance!

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