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Central California Life Magazine

Preserving history: Fresno State project gives voice to Valley veterans

Apr 20, 2015 07:33PM ● By Cen Cali Life Magazine

Rice advises student Thea Napolitano. Students who participate in the oral history project interview veterans, transcribe their recordings and create documents that are archived in the university library. Photo by Dan Minkler

Preserving history: Fresno State project gives voice to Valley veterans

Story by Valerie Shelton 

When Fresno State journalism professor Gary Rice moved to Fresno in 2003, the first thing he noticed about the Central Valley was its heightened patriotism.

That observation later birthed the idea for the Central California War Veterans Oral History Project.

“There are lots of former military people, lots of veterans, lots of career military types and, of course, an extremely large Veterans Day parade in town,” Rice said. “So I thought it would be a natural fit to have this project here. It turns out it is.”

Students who participate in the Central California War Veterans Oral History Project interview local veterans and transcribe their recordings to create historical documents that are archived in the Henry Madden Library at Fresno State.

Since the project launched in 2010, 459 oral histories have been completed. 

Thirty new oral histories will be added to the archives at a ceremony at the Clovis Veterans Memorial Building on May 6.

A community of veterans

Charlie Waters, an active member of many local veterans’ organizations, said the project is perfect for the Central Valley, which is home to 300,000-plus veterans.

“You always hear about the Central Valley being the last on the list, but we’re toward the top of the list when it comes to how many veterans live here,” Waters said. “That is partially because our community has great respect for veterans and offers a lot of services. Fresno has the second largest Veterans’ Day parade in the country and we have one of the finest military museums. We also have a new veterans’ home that other places are trying to emulate.”

Waters, a Korean era combat veteran, said the Central California War Veteran’s Oral History Project is beneficial for all involved.

“Many veterans think that people have forgotten, but when a student contacts them and shows interest in hearing their story, they feel appreciated,” Waters said. “It’s been a couple years since a student interviewed me, but I remember meeting with him two to five times and, after spending some time with him, I was able to loosen up and recall experiences I hadn’t thought of in a long time.

“He was very interested and it was a great experience for him because he didn’t know a lot about the Korean War before that and he gained some insight. It was also good for me to remember my experience.”

Paul Loeffler, who hosts the Hometown Heroes radio show and helps facilitate the local Honor Flight program, said he is delighted to partner with the Central California War Veterans’ Oral History Project and its students, some who have gone on the Honor Flights to Washington D.C. to interview veterans and witness them seeing the World War II monument for the first time.

“The project is valuable for veterans of all ages, but it has been especially meaningful for World War II veterans,” Loeffler said. “Today’s Fresno State students are about the same age as these heroes were when they went to war. To have young people express genuine interest in their experiences not only makes them feel appreciated, but it gives them a chance to inspire the future with stories from the past.”

Rice’s assistant on the project, graduate student Sammy LoProto, said some of the stories he has heard from veterans are jaw-dropping.

“One veteran I interviewed, Roger Jensen, was the pilot on the last plane on the last mission of World War II,” LoProto said. “He was part of the last bombing raid of B-29s. As the group of planes started to take off, the plane he was on had some engine difficulties so they were called off, but the mechanic was able to fix the problem and they decided to take off. As the plane was flying back, he remembered hearing over the radio that the war was over.

“That story just made my jaw drop to the floor. This is just one man’s story. All the students who work on the project get to hear different stories like this and they are amazing to hear.”

Forging intergenerational friendships

Rice said students and veterans will often form a bond that lasts way beyond the initial interview.

“When talking about their experience with the project at the end-of-the-semester ceremony, veterans will use the phrase ‘my student’ when talking about the student who interviewed them,” Rice said. “Conversely, I hear students talk about ‘my veteran.’ That’s a good indication that bonds are being developed. I know of several cases where students have stayed in contact with their veteran for years after the interview.”

Daniel Ward, a recent Fresno State graduate who holds the record for having done the most oral histories of any student so far – nine – said one of the veterans he interviewed has become a lifelong friend.

“One couple has become my surrogate grandparents,” Ward said. “I go to the shooting range or grab some hamburgers for lunch with him and he and his wife have had me over for dinner several times. I’ve also become friends with their son.”

In March, Ward was sworn into the Air Force as a commissioned officer in the medical program. During the ceremony, he held on to one of the veteran’s medals.

Interviewing this particular veteran, as well as the other eight, had such an impact on him that he was able to make the decision to enlist wholeheartedly.

“I’ve wanted to serve since I was in elementary school but this project helped affirm that I was in the right place mentally to apply for the Air Force program,” Ward said. “One question I would ask at the end of each interview was whether or not the veteran would recommend service work to others and the overwhelming response was that they would encourage it.

“For me, hearing that from the average soldier – if you can call someone who was willing to sacrifice his life for his country average – was inspiring.”

In addition to the relationships forged out of the program, veterans also have a newfound connection to their local university.

 “Before this project started, veterans had little or no connection with the Fresno State campus,” Henry Madden Library Associate Dean Dave Tyckoson said. “When the project first started, though, the veterans would come on campus for the end-of-semester ceremony at the library. The ceremony has now outgrown the library, but the project still gives the veterans involved a connection to Fresno State.”

“I remember one Vietnam veteran who spoke at one of the first ceremonies who said he had not set foot on a college campus since before joining the service,” Tyckoson continued. “He was from the Bay Area and said, when he got out [of the service], people in college mistreated him so he stayed away from colleges.

“Now, he was able to go on a college campus, be welcomed and see things in a positive way.”

Making history

While the project is a meaningful one for veterans and students alike, the end product created after each interview holds tremendous historical value.

Each oral history, Tyckoson said, includes a transcript and recording of the interview and any documents or photos the veteran chooses to add. A list of the histories is also available online. Right now, he said, the database is only organized by name, but soon it will be organized by conflict and branch of service, as well. In the future, the recordings will be put online also so they are easily accessible for researchers out of the area.

Tyckoson said that at least two researchers a month come in and mull over the information contained in the oral histories. Scholars have started to cite the information they contain in books and other published works. He said these developments are “pretty remarkable” for Fresno State and the Central Valley.

“We currently have 459 oral histories in the collection and we are going to pass the 500 mark by the end of the year,” Tyckoson said. “It’s the largest archive of its kind and it’s growing rapidly. That growth is important because these stories need to be gathered. Sadly, there are so few World War II veterans left and soon, we will no longer be able to get a firsthand account of World War II without referring to oral histories. The Vietnam era veterans won’t be around forever, either.”

Waters said the historical records are also good resources for families who want to research relatives who have served.

“Many people come to the veterans museum wanting to find out more about their father or grandfather who served in World War II,” Waters said. “Having access to these oral histories will help families in the future who want to go and hear a firsthand account about their loved ones’ experiences.”

Rice said what makes the project unique is that it can potentially continue on indefinitely.

“The project can probably go on forever because there will always be new veterans created,” he said. “That is the beauty of it. It is a historical resource but it is also one that stays alive with new subjects.”

Ward said he would encourage any Fresno State student with an interest in the project to get involved.

“It’s a fantastic program,” he said. “You don’t need to be a journalism major to take part. I was chemistry major and pre-med. All you need is an interest.

“I’d also encourage any veterans willing to share their story to be a part of it.”

Daniel Ward with Lucille and Chuck Noll. Noll, who served in the Navy in the Pacific Theater during World War II, was one of nine veterans Ward interviewed for the oral history project. What began as a class assignment for Ward blossomed into a lasting friendship. He and Noll talk on the phone regularly and go out to eat together. 

Valerie Shelton has worked as a reporter and editor for several Central Valley publications. Most recently, she was editor of The Fowler Ensign, a small town paper which ceased publication last fall. She currently writes freelance and plans to go back to school and earn a teaching credential.