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Thursday, 23 February 2017 14:13

Rock County Historical Society’s mission to document residents’ stories

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A story card is pinned to the Story Wall in the Helen Jeffris Museum Center on the Rock County Historical Society campus in Janesville. The Story Wall is one way that residents are invited to share their stories during the society’s History in Focus effort this year. A story card is pinned to the Story Wall in the Helen Jeffris Museum Center on the Rock County Historical Society campus in Janesville. The Story Wall is one way that residents are invited to share their stories during the society’s History in Focus effort this year. Terry Mayer/staff

JANESVILLE -- Area residents can help make, add to and shape history simply by telling their stories.

The Rock County Historical Society’s theme for 2017 is History in Focus: Sharing Stories, Supporting Community.

The organization’s goal, with the help of volunteers, is to collect and document hundreds of stories from all corners of the county. And they hope to accomplish it through a partnership with businesses, government, nonprofits and the general public in capturing the essence of Rock County.

“Storytelling is a way to inspire action within and elicit pride in a community,” RCHS Executive Director Mike Reuter said in a news release. “A large part of our mission is to capture and tell those stories in different, creative ways.”

Project participants will emphasize four avenues for the public to share their stories, three of them being through social media, its website/blog and a Story Wall at its Jackson Street campus in downtown Janesville.

LeeAnn Severson is the marketing manager at RCHS, working 20 hours per week. She and Reuter also are spearheading a fourth component of the yearlong effort, the Story Squad, which involves going out into the communities and gathering the information.

“We’re aiming to get a team of 25 to 30 volunteers to lead the Story Squad, but we’ll gladly welcome anybody who shows interest,” the Janesville Craig graduate and current University of Wisconsin-Whitewater digital marketing major said. “We launched in January, so it might take a few weeks to get volunteers lined up and through the training. We’ve got community events and locations throughout the county that we will try to attend and talk to people about their experiences of living here.”

The Story Squad’s first two volunteers are Janesville residents Greg and Lois Smith, who retired in the last couple of years after more than three decades in higher education.

Greg is an Eau Claire native whose most recent job was as an assistant dean for the College of Letters & Sciences at UW-Madison, while Lois’ story features 30 years as a professor and associate dean for the College of Business & Economics at UW-Whitewater.

Participating in the History in Focus project is a natural progression for the Smiths. Lois has served on the RCHS board and worked on business planning for elements of the campus, while Greg currently serves on the board. They both have volunteered for events such as the Tallman Arts Festival.

“Greg learned about the program through the RCHS board, and I saw the idea in a regular email message and on the RCHS website,” said Lois, a South Dakota native. “We like talking with people and hearing their stories. Mike Reuter and LeeAnn Severson trained us in what the project entails and what the expectations are for our involvement.”

Reuter and Severson will be assigning Story Squad members to particular events and themes, but what volunteers bring back from those sessions is anybody’s guess. Regardless, the results will add to what makes up Rock County’s historical tapestry.

“My expectation is that this will be an opportunity for people to share their ‘small stories,’” Lois Smith said. “To call them small doesn’t mean that those stories are insignificant. They are the fabric of our daily lives and things that were important to us and that shaped us and affected this community.

“While events in the news certainly are important, these stories will be about the lives of regular citizens, what they did and what they valued,” she added. “I think you could say that they are paragraph memoirs, a brief view into people’s memories.”

RCHS will be asking unique questions related to monthly, weekly or daily celebrations, themes or anniversaries. One example: February is Black History Month.

Severson said the topics and opportunities to share are endless, so she’s excited to see how the project progresses throughout the year.

“We welcome light-hearted stories and experiences, and we want residents to share them,” Severson said. “However, not all history is happy. There are stories about issues and we won’t shy away from controversial events and topics because we want people to share those stories, too.”

Reuter said that this army of story capturers is vital to making the project a success.

“The Story Squad is a fun way to engage the community, getting them to share their stories and in the process helping the society preserve and promote Rock County history.

“It is our job to create awareness of what needs to improve in Rock County, its issues and to use the past, present and future to have a dialogue that leads to fostering a better way of life for all that call Rock County home,” Reuter said.

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