Heidelberg Stories Project: The ties that bind

Stories that go untold are bound to be forgotten. To be sure, Heidelberg has plenty of stories – some folklore, some factual – that literally explain its history, traditions and personality. About five years ago, a public relations class developed The Heidelberg Stories Project to preserve these memories. The project has evolved into a labor of love for Professor Emerita Dr. Leanne Wolff.

Dr. WolffWolff, who retired in 1995 after more than 30 years as professor of communication, took on the project in collaboration with the Office of Alumni Relations. Whenever there was a captive audience – at Alumni Weekend, Fellows Day, Homecoming – there she was with her video camera, recording alumni, retired faculty and others who had Heidelberg stories to share. In all, Wolff said she has recorded about 200 oral histories.

“We do provide questions as a guide,” she explained. “We ask them to focus on their college life, who was important to them, why they came to Heidelberg.” For many alumni, the conversation lands on a favorite faculty member who positively influenced their life.

Sometimes, the interviewees simply share their stories. But sometimes, their recollections tickle the funny bone. For her part, Wolff knows how to draw out the best information. “I must confess, if I know something they’re not telling me or they’ve forgotten, I do ask!” she said.

She recalled the genesis of the project. “It started when (then President) Dominic Dottavio came to my 50th class reunion. We were famous for telling stories. After listening to us for a while, he said, ‘I’ve read both Heidelberg history books, but I didn’t know about these things.’”

Out of that observation grew funding for the project, which included purchasing cameras. On occasion, Wolff traveled to tape a story. Primarily, though, she worked around planned events on campus, making a concentrated effort to record retired faculty members, several of whom have since passed away.

Wolff drew upon her expertise in family communication – and as an alumna – to understand the importance of the project. “When I taught family communication, one of the theories we talked about was the importance of stories and families, and how many families define themselves by their stories.

“If no one records (the stories), they’re lost after three generations,” she said, adding that she assigned her students to collect their family stories to understand who they are and where they have been.

Just as family traits are revealed through story collection, Heidelberg’s persona and character are explained for future generations.

Several series of interviews have been compiled on DVDs. “Shenanigans and Hijinks,” a compilation of stories of Medallion Club members from 2009, Class of 1950 memories and interviews from the 2011 Science Reunion participants and former professors, all have been edited and converted to DVD. Others may follow, according to Dr. Kathy Venema, director of Alumni Relations.

This weekend, as one of the many planned Alumni Weekend activities, ‘Berg graduates will have an opportunity to tell their Heidelberg stories. Once again, Wolff will have the camera rolling, but she is wrapping up her involvement with the project.

Venema said the Stories Project will continue with other alumni volunteers manning the camera.

Posted on: 
Jun 21, 2011