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Oral history project forges student, elder bond
Photos and Story by James Hill
By Mark KirchmeierLaura Lee Ogan manages hundreds of tasks as a coordinator at the Volunteers of America/Oregon Velma Joy Burnie adult day care center in Portland. And Ogan wishes she had more volunteers like PCC student Jaci Leavitt at the center at 537 S.E. Alder St."I’ve always wanted to find a way — to devote hours — just talking with each individual person here to appreciate them on deeper levels,"Ogan said, "and so I was elated when PCC sent Jaci to interview one of our people."When Rock Creek Campus speech instructor Holly King assigned students to senior centers to find oral history subjects, Leavitt didn’t relish the task. "I had signed up for Introduction to Speech Communication in order to overcome my anxiety about talking to groups,"said Leavitt, a 24-year-old, first-year student from Portland who hopes to study physical therapy or naturopathic medicine. "I didn’t want to write an oral history."While Leavitt had always loved hearing her own grandparents’ stories, interviewing anyone –elderly or not — for hours at a time, for six consecutive sessions, seemed daunting. She did not know what to expect when she first walked through the Burnie center last term to meet her assignment: 78-year-old Wilma Gilbert. The taciturn, reflective Gilbert seemed a tough nut to crack. "She seemed standoff-ish, and even warned me that she lacked a knack for gab,"Leavitt remembers, "but I tried anyway."The ice melted once Gilbert saw Leavitt’s sincerity, and over the student’s next six visits, a river of stories began running of her hard-scrabble girlhood on Nebraska and South Dakota farms during the Great Depression.Gilbert’s world widened after high school, and included Portland, when she and her sister moved here in 1943 to get well paying work building World War II ships at Swan Island. When the men returned from the service, and the "Rosie the Riveters"like Gilbert lost those jobs, she switched to a career at Meier & Frank. She never married but became a second mom to her sister’s children in town."As I got to know Wilma better, we became less student and interviewee, and more friends,"Leavitt says. "And I knew that it wasn’t just a paper anymore – it was dealing with someone’s life, and I wanted to do it justice."Wilma would confide to Leavitt that the financial, and perhaps emotional, barrenness of her early years had made her introverted and often at pains to share feelings with others. Their bond crossed a higher threshold when Leavitt learned that Wilma had terminal lung cancer. "Her spirit remained strong during the chemotherapy and our relationship grew closer,"she says. At the completion of her speech class, Leavitt’s oral history paper took on a new life. When Wilma died this winter, the Burnie staff presented its stories and secrets to her sister, nieces and surviving family at the memorial service. Wilma was then buried at Mt. Scott cemetery overlooking the city. "My gratitude is deep to the Burnie center for introducing me to Wilma. I refuse to ever forget her, and I wouldn’t have had this experience without our class’ community service partnership,"Leavitt said.Her PCC instructor Holly King nodded, and proudly added how Leavitt and the 20 other students "gave something back"to their elderly clients. "A lot of the students grew to love their subjects,"King says. And in Wilma Gilbert’s case, when King shared Leavitt’s experience at a recent college Community Partners Forum, "there was hardly a dry eye in the house."