With personal histories, everyone can star in a memoir

Marsha King
The Seattle Times

SEATTLE -- As the camera starts to roll in the living room of his Edmonds, Wash., penthouse, the great-grandfather sits up a little straighter, clears his throat and reads the first cue card.

"My name is Dean Echelbarger. And this is my life."

Then, for the next three hours, Echelbarger -- a prominent Snohomish County, Wash., land developer -- humbly spins out the story of his 83 years:

About growing up as one of nine kids during the Depression: "We didn't have any money, but we always had full stomachs."

About liberating concentration-camp victims during World War II: "They were so weak they couldn't stand by themselves."

About being married nearly six decades to Gladys, who died of cancer five years ago: "She was a beautiful girl. But she had a mind of her own. Don't most women?"

As a man who rarely talks about himself, this wasn't his decision ... to be a movie star.

His adult children, nudged by a grandkid who heard about the idea, hired a film company to capture his personal story on a professionally produced DVD, complete with live interviews, old photos and music.

"He just had a lot of stuff to tell. We've been wanting to get it down on paper," daughter-in-law Kathy Echelbarger said. "We just thought it's a great way to get all this family history."

The explosion of interest in tracing one's roots has given rise to another phenomenon. Ordinary people -- particularly baby boomers and their elder parents -- are hiring filmmakers and writers to immortalize their histories on pricey videos and books that can look good enough for the History Channel or bookstore shelves.

"It's entertainment combined with history," said RJ McHatton, whose Bellevue company, Inventive Productions, is producing the Echelbarger video. "... We're trying to learn about their personalities, the lessons they learned, the family values and ethics, the wisdom and advice."

The trend, while not in the mainstream, is hot enough that an international conference in Portland on Oct. 4-8 for producers of personal histories was sold out.

Typically, the videos use high-definition cameras and combine photo montages and music with live interviews. The books can combine first-person narratives with photos, images of legal documents or letters, and even audio interviews on disc.

Speculation varies about the stepped-up interest in documenting personal history. Some say the 9/11 terrorist attacks forced us to confront our mortality. Others claim this fast-paced, transient society is looking for its lost roots. Still others note that time is running out for the World War II generation.

"People are trying to make sense out of their lives," said Karen Lynn Maher, a personal historian in Kirkland, Wash.

The trend reflects a revolution under way in how we regard social history. Homage to the achievements of generals and presidents has broadened with a recognition that a nation's history can't be authentic without the stories of average citizens.

Museums, historical societies, even the Veterans Administration are all scrambling to build their collections of oral-history interviews with the likes of World War II veterans, Rosie the Riveters and African-American pioneers.

And people are simply becoming aware of what's possible, thanks to an explosion in online search tools, new accessibility of historical documents and genealogy databases, and the ease of desktop publishing and digital cameras.

"It's absolutely wonderful for people to see themselves as actors in history," said Lorraine McConaghy, historian at Seattle's Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI), which is building a collection of oral-history interviews with metropolitan Seattle residents.

In response to rising interest, a small industry has emerged.

The Association of Personal Historians has grown from about 15 members in 1995 to more than 600 worldwide, including about 20 companies in Washington state.

In Portland, the group's four-day conference will include a free public forum on how to capture life stories, find genealogy data on the Internet and preserve heirlooms.

Anyone can call himself a personal historian; the title carries no special credentials or certification, and the prices and quality of work vary.

Maher charges about $13,500 for 10 simply bound memoirs based on three to four hours of interviews.

McHatton's most popular video package is $6,000 for a 45-minute documentary that includes interviews with friends and family, a musical slide show, a coffee-table book, a movie poster and the design of a personal Web site.

On the low end, he offers a basic autobiography interview of one person with opening and ending music and a title screen, but no editing, for $500.

"The main goal is really not monetary," McHatton said. "The thing I like the most is the wisdom and stories ... the lessons they've learned and their defining moments."

So far, the market for personal historians is primarily well-off and white.

"We have a group that's reaching out to people of color ... that's one of the things we've really focused on," said Julie McDonald Zander, a personal historian in Lewis County who's directing the Portland conference.

And in the vast majority of cases, "it is the men who do the life story," said Ralph Fascitelli, co-founder of a Seattle-based video-biography company LifeChapters. "I think this is a generational thing, as most older women were homemakers who felt their husbands led more interesting lives."

Folks who tackle the job themselves have boosted enrollment in local how-to classes and programs.

Legal secretary Lori Handschin enrolled in a nine-month course at the University of Washington to write a scholarly work about her father's World War II service as a combat medic. She can't imagine hiring out this work -- "It would be like hiring someone else to write a love letter for me."

But many would-be historians want help.

On Mercer Island, Marion Chadwick wanted to inspire other older adults with a memoir about her late-life competitive swimming career. In retirement, the former elementary school teacher hired a coach and started winning medals in international competitions.

Over a few years, she'd accumulated an accordion file full of handwritten notes and research but no finished product. Her husband urged her to hire Maher, whom he'd heard speak at a gathering of retired bankers.

The resulting six-month project, "Tales of a Master Swimmer," will cost $13,500, not including printing 300 copies of the glossy paperback. She'll mail most of the copies as gifts to everybody she knows, hoping they'll pass their copy on to others.

"I'm at the place where I don't spend money on clothes ...," said Chadwick, who, at 85, is still winning medals. "It's where you put your priorities."

As movie stars go, Dean Echelbarger could be called unassuming.

He professes no regrets, no terrible times and no grand turning points. The only lesson he wants to impart is the familiar "Do unto others. ..."

His proudest moments? When each of his three sons was born. And he feels good about helping raise money for buildings and a day care on the Edmonds Community College campus, and helping low-income students get scholarships.

"As you get older, you find out that you are a historian ... I know things that I have never mentioned ..."

He grew up around the first settlers of what is now Lynnwood.

"I was old enough to know them ... my dad owned the freight line." Echelbarger came home from school to load the wood those homesteaders chopped every day onto his dad's truck. It was bound for the fireplaces of families in Seattle -- "families with names that are now streets."



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