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Published: Monday, 5/11/2009

Historymakers get the past right in their stories

HISTORIANS are sometimes accused of rewriting history to suit their own agenda. Updated textbooks and online encyclopedias to which virtually anyone can contribute invite such abuse. Sometimes when we look back, we see things as we wish they had been, not as they were. Who hasn't reminisced about the "good old days" as seen through rose-colored glasses?

The Toledo-Lucas County Public Library has found a way around all that. Record history while it's still fresh in everyone's minds, especially in the words of those who lived it.

So was born the Sight and Sound Project, a program undertaken by the library to create video archives of prominent local citizens of achievement.

The subject agrees to sit down with an interviewer for roughly 60 to 90 minutes in a quiet TV studio and answer questions he or she is hearing for the first time. There's no script, no commercial interruptions, no time clock. The session ends when there is nothing more to say.

It has been my pleasure and privilege to be part of the Sight and Sound Project as an interviewer, and I have been enriched by the experience.

Our first subject was a man whose firm has been one of the most successful home-grown companies in Ohio, The Andersons. Company chairman Dick Anderson traced his family's remarkable history, the triumphs and tragedy that helped define who he is, and the growth of an enterprise that is still going strong after more than 60 years.

Several weeks later we sat down with Frank Gilhooley, Jr., whose career as a sportscaster and longtime voice of the Toledo Mud Hens made him an obvious choice. I consider Frank "Mr. Baseball" in our region. From Swayne Field to Skeldon Stadium to Fifth Third Field, he's seen it all. At a time in his life - he's 85 - when most of his contemporaries are retired or gone, he still broadcasts an occasional Hens game.

So many stories, so little time, as they say. How fortunate to get them down on a DVD, including Mr. Gilhooley's recounting of the time Casey Stengel, then the manager of the Mud Hens, was so exasperated with his team's play that he advised the players to invest in railroad stock because they would soon be riding the rails out of town for good.

Some might ask what's to stop a Sight and Sound guest from a little historical revision of his or her own.

Nothing, actually. But in the one-on-one interviews so far, without TV or print reporters hanging on every word, the guests tend to be amazingly forthright and determined to get it right for history's sake.

When Mr. Anderson, who leads one of the most admired companies in the region, speaks of the death of his sister when both were children, the emotion is genuine, the pain still evident. When he describes the struggles of The Andersons' early years, and the difficulties that can come with rapid growth, he doesn't gloss over the bad stuff.

When Mr. Gilhooley talks about his early childhood and the summers he traveled with his father, a major league ballplayer, the memories are vivid and fresh, with no embellishment needed. When he laughs about having the legendary Babe Ruth as a baby sitter, or describes his close friendship years later with Yankee legend Joe Dimaggio, his stories are a source of personal pride, not an exercise in name-dropping.

A Sight and Sound interview of Jon Hendricks, the legendary jazz vocalist, provides similar insights into the man's fascinating life and his innovative "vocalese" style. It was obviously a labor of love for interviewer John Cleveland.

The unspoken concern with the series is that some of the most wonderful stories and histories won't get told because we'll lose the storyteller first.

That happened with the legendary Margaret "Rusty" Monroe, Toledo's Queen of Jazz, who passed away in Florida last October at age 89 before an interview at her Punta Gorda home could be arranged.

Sight and Sound is a collaboration with WGTE-TV, Toledo's public television station. Marlon Kiser and his staff provide the studio, and the library's Dave Misko handles the post-production. Mike Lora, the library's manager of local history and genealogy, oversees the project.

Every branch of the library has DVD copies of the Sight and Sound interviews to lend. They also can be viewed as streaming video on the library's web site, toledolibrary.org. So far, more than 6,100 views have been recorded.

Clyde Scoles, director of the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library, was a strong advocate for the project.

"I just felt it was important to build on our local history collection," Mr. Scoles says. "We have a lot of audio tapes of people who are no longer with us, and adding video is one more way to capture a lot of local memory."

Memories like Dick Anderson recalling the "Big Dig" in the early 1950s, Frank Gilhooley describing his basketball career as a member of the Toledo Jeeps and going up against the great Harlem Globetrotters, and Jon Hendricks talking about how "vocalese" evolved and some of the legends of music he performed with.

Video interviews for posterity's sake are not a new concept. But the library deserves credit for recognizing that some of the most important history lessons are being taught right here in our own community, by people from whom we have much to learn.



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