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Personal Historians Document Family Memories

  • Faiza Elmasry

Documenting a family's history, whether through images, home movies or shared memories, is usually a very personal endeavor.

However, for people interested in documenting their family memories, but who are too busy or unable to do it themselves, there are professionals, known as personal historians, who get the job done.

Pilot James Lanning, 84, has flown across six continents and logged nearly 34,000 hours in the air. His son, Jim Lanning, says his father passed along his love of aviation to his four kids, 14 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Lanning says his daughter, Elizabeth, was fascinated by the stories her grandfather shared with her in the cockpit.

“She would always come home excited about hearing a new story of a trip that he flew, delivering a plane to Africa, to a mission field, to somewhere in Brazil, or had a problem with the plane, just some of the stories I grew up as a boy experiencing and seeing and listening to, him coming home from a trip and telling us a story,” he said.

That’s when the idea of preserving his father’s stories was born.

“As the new generations come on and our children start having children, I just thought it would be a wonderful idea to have memorialized some of the stories, and some of the experiences coming from Dad first-hand.”

Since everyone in the family was too busy to do it themselves, they hired Ronda Barrett, a personal historian, to document the family history on film.

“He’s trying to relate tales from what he experienced and in some cases give them information that may save their lives some day in terms of being a pilot,” Barrett said.

However, the elder Lanning was not entirely at ease while participating in the project.

"Their grandfather is very comfortable sharing those stories in the context of being in the cockpit or being in the hangar or working on a plane, and the stories are free flowing. He’s not as comfortable sitting down and being interviewed about that. So more of the exercise in this project has been getting him to a comfort level to sit in what wasn’t as natural of a setting for him and getting those stories to flow.”

Barrett is a filmmaker, who left a career in marketing to make movies about families. She’s one of more than 700 members of the Association of Personal Historians, a national organization for professionals in the field.

She says films are not the only form of preserving family history. Some people create a family cookbook, pairing recollections with recipes handed down from generation to generation. Others prefer to tell family stories by creating a quilt or collecting photos, letters and cards in a book.

“Those sweet little things give you a flavor of those conversations that must have been had between those family members,” she said.

Barrett also does consultations for people who want to document their family's history themselves.

“If you have a pencil and a piece of paper, you can write your stories," she said. "Nowadays, everyone has a camera, a video camera on their cell phones, so there is an opportunity for everyone to capture something in some way. So when people come to me, typically their questions have to do with how overwhelmed they feel about even starting it. If you start with the idea of capturing someone’s entire life, it is overwhelming. It’s a difficult place to start from on your own.”

Breaking the project into manageable pieces, she advises, can be a starting point. Sort out family photos or interview an older family member

Whether people do it on their own or hire a personal historian, the project can prompt inter-generational conversations, and family pride.

“I think this will provide a lot of the historical perspective," Lanning said, "and I frankly plan on showing it once it’s completed not just for family, but to the flying family, the flying community.”

Personal historians are not only documenting family stories before they are lost, they are also preserving a bit of history.
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