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David Gould reading the mail.



A letter-writing project strikes a chord with senior citizens, students, and people around the world.

Throughout his life, David Gould has written letters, sometimes sending them off into the unknown.

As a graduate student, he wrote to successful, well-known people asking them to reflect on their lives outside of work. The request struck a chord with some, including Muhammad Ali, whose ink-stained reply reveals early signs of Parkinson’s disease. Another response, from model Carol Alt, told of her regrets. She’d missed so many important things, she wrote, while being consumed by her career.

“I’ve always been interested in learning from people who, maybe at one point in their lives, were at the top of the mountain, ” Gould says. “What would they think looking back?”

Those viewpoints are valuable in the leisure studies lecturer’s popular general education course, Perspectives on Leisure and Play. Among other topics, the course looks at what it means to live a good life in an industrialized, overscheduled society. How do you balance work and leisure, ambitions and family?

So for a number of years, Gould gave his students a simple assignment: find someone 65 or older, and ask the person to reflect on the role of leisure in his or her life.

But he often received panicked e-mails from students that all shared a troubling, common theme—many students didn’t know anyone they could interview for the assignment.

“I didn’t understand it at first,” he says. “What was it saying? It was saying that my students really had no connection with older generations. Even if they had grandparents, they didn’t have a solid relationship with them.”

Gould, who had been close to his own grandparents, saw seniors as a vital resource to students who were about to enter the world. So in 2007, he put out a call to seniors in the community: what do you know now that you wish you had known in your 20s?

A few e-mails arrived. He thought the experiment would fail. And then one day, the letters began to stream in. He’d find them tucked under his office door, in his mailbox, and in his e-mail inbox. They came in the form of lists, eulogies, poems, and stories. As word about the project spread, the letters arrived from increasingly far away: Hawaii, Venezuela.

“Seniors would call to make sure I’d received their letters, or they’d ask if it was OK if their letters were seven pages long,” he says. “I began to realize how seriously they were taking this task.”

By the end of the semester, he had collected enough letters to distribute to each of the 250 students in his class. Seniors gave the college students advice about love, careers, family, and coping with loss. They told tales of domestic violence, of Vietnam War-era protests on campus, and a UI Marching Band made up only of men.

The collection of life lessons, known as the Legacy Letter Project, has grown beyond Gould’s expectations. It has also affected people outside of his classroom, thanks to a web site that make the letters accessible to anyone in the world:

“I get a lot of satisfaction when I hear from people that the letters have made an impact,” he says. “Students have written to me and mentioned that the letter they read played a role in decisions they’ve made.”

The study of leisure—that is, how we live and balance our lives outside of work—is woven throughout Gould’s life.

He started his career as an artist, but became intrigued by leisure studies after taking a class about aging and free time. As a graduate student in leisure studies, a colleague asked for his help producing a series of educational films for TV. One of the films won a Regional Emmy Award, and led Gould to discover a love of telling stories accessible to the mainstream through film.

“I’d always wanted to have this marriage between doing work that had integrity,” Gould says, “and doing work that people saw.”

In the late 1990s, he set out to tell the story of someone who had long interested him—Iowa wrestling legend Dan Gable. The film Gould produced, Freestyle: The Victories of Dan Gable, was picked up by HBO, and a feature film is in the works.

For HBO, Gould also produced The Checker King, which told the story of an 81-year-old Iowa man who plays in the National Checker Tournament.

Both films explored the ways in which a pastime—wrestling and checkers—helped people to overcome tragedy.
In addition to teaching, he’s producing a documentary about honor crimes that follows the story of a Kurdish woman caught between two cultures who is killed by her brother. Two Sides of the Moon: The Tragic Honor Killing of Hatun Aynur Sürücü integrates Gould’s interviews with three Nobel Peace Prize winners: Desmond Tutu, Shirin Ebadi, and the Dalai Lama.
Gould realizes he’s lucky to have found a fulfilling career. It’s a notion he tries to pass on to his students through his teaching and the Legacy Letter Project.

He reminds his students that the letter writers rarely relish the time they spent working jobs that fed their pocketbooks and not their souls.

“I hope that I encourage these students to continue to feed their passions,” Gould says. “What I try to leave them with is that it’s the journey, the people you meet along the way, and the moments of happiness that will be the most important to them when they look back on their own lives.”

Story by Madelaine Jerousek-Smith; photo by Tom Jorgensen.

Related link:

Audio slideshow with David Gould

May 11, 2009


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