After living through last summer’s floods, many people never want to think about them again. But in offices, colleges, and departments around campus, people have been meticulously saving data from the floods, knowing that by revisiting those grim days it will be possible to learn ways to protect the University and community in the future.
Nancy L. Baker, University Librarian, had a similar impulse. “The mission of libraries, particularly academic research libraries, is to preserve the heritage, history, and thoughts of a community, to mark these events and provide some way to preserve them,” she says. Baker knew that as time passed and memory faded, the stories of what actually happened would fade as well. She knew, too, that the stories people had to tell of their flood experiences could provide valuable information for historical research. Baker, along with the Libraries’ public relations coordinator Kristi Bontrager, thought first-person storytelling would be an ideal way to preserve flood memories.
“The idea came from the Iowa Women’s Archives, which has a terrific collection of oral histories,” Bontrager says. “This information can be used by any number of people in any number of ways.”
Baker and Bontrager invited StoryCorps to campus. StoryCorps, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to “honor and celebrate one another’s lives through listening,” preserves tales of everyday life, as well as those that focus on a specific theme. Its work is heard frequently on National Public Radio. In their three days in Iowa City, StoryCorps staff not only recorded flood stories, but also served as mentors and models for students.
Bontrager enlisted a number of people around campus and the community to encourage locals to come and tell their stories.
“We solicited stories from [UI president] Sally Mason and [Iowa City mayor] Regenia Bailey, because they played such big roles,” she says. “But because much of their story had been covered in the media, we also wanted to include other stories that weren’t documented and might have been lost.”
Two UI staff members who together shared their flood memories are Ken Schumacher and Chuck Swanson, both employees of the hard-hit Hancher Auditorium.
“I agreed to do it because there were so many stories to tell,” says Swanson, executive director of Hancher. “Our memories seemed so vivid at the time and yet you don’t always remember the things you wish you’d remembered. This was a historic event, particularly for the University.”
Schumacher, Hancher’s production manager, described the recording experience as a “calm” one.
“We were in a room with a facilitator and a tape recorder and she didn’t interrupt us unless we got off topic,” he says. “They did a good job of making it comfortable for people to sit and improvise. It was a sort of stream-of-consciousness study—each of us talked about our unique experience of the flood and how it affected us. I thought about it beforehand but didn’t prepare anything. My only worry was that I was afraid I’d forget something important.”
Listening to their conversation can be painful. They recall the intense emotions that accompanied the flood: Schumacher remembers the helpless feeling of standing on the hillside by Parklawn watching the flood’s progress and the frustration of knowing he was losing the equipment that enabled him to do his work. Swanson remembers the contrast of the horror of the flood and the warmth of the calls of condolence and offers of help from artists and friends. And yet, despite the difficulty in dredging up these emotions, both men are glad they participated.
“It’s good to take a look at things when you’ve calmed down and your eyes are dry,” says Schumacher. “If you don’t preserve things that have significance, they will dribble away. The flood will always be a part of us and we need to remember it, especially if we’re building a new building.”
“It was healthy to talk about the experiences that shaped those days and weeks—it forced me to put my thoughts together,” Swanson says. “And down the road, when we’re no longer around, you never know how people might use these stories.”
by Linzee Kull McCray