I have been hearing voices lately – at three Princeton funerals and one Princeton celebration of new book.
All the voices were transformative, inspiring and they motivated me to spread the word about another inspirational voice, albeit an institutional one – The Princeton Public Library’s “Voices of Princeton” initiative.
The recent funerals of longtime Princeton residents Ray Wadsworth, Ann McGoldrick and Jim Floyd, renowned for their selfless and passionate commitment to the health and well-being of the residents of the Princeton community, were all in perfect sync with the personalities of the deceased.
Closing my eyes during the services, I could hear their voices.
The fourth inspiring voice I heard came from a living person – Jim Florio, the former governor, who spoke at a June 20 Princeton Public Library program.
Gov. Florio, who for a few years lived in Princeton in a big house on Route 206, exhibited iron-willed, principled, moral leadership that has sustained my faith in democratically elected government officials during these governmentally despairing times.
Renowned state political reporter Charles Stile interviewed Gov. Florio, who was promoting his recently published book, appropriately titled, “Standing on Principle: Lessons Learned in Public Life.”
After weeks of absorbing the profound messages of these different voices, I concluded that I enjoy stories from the living more than stories about the dead – no matter how much I laugh and sigh and cry at the stories about the dead. As a result, the Public Library’s “Voices of Princeton” initiative took on great significance for me. It replaces the “would have” statements (he/she would have said this, would have liked that, would have done this) with the real-time, unfiltered-by-anyone-else, statements of the individual’s opinions and reflections.
Voices of Princeton, which was launched in May, is a collaborative oral history project among the Princeton Public Library, the Historical Society of Princeton, the Arts Council of Princeton, and the Witherspoon-Jackson Historical and Cultural Society, according to Hannah Schmidl, the library’s National Endowment for the Humanities fellow, who is overseeing the Voices Project.
The goal of the project is to collect, share and archive stories and memories of Princetonians of all social, ethnic, economic and reputational backgrounds. This project aims to capture and preserve a contemporary moment in Princeton’s history, and also record resident’s recollections and experiences of previous periods in Princeton’s history. Two people who know one another sign up together, one as the interviewer and one as the interviewee.
Oral history, said Hannah, is a method for studying the past by interviewing people who lived through it. The oral history technique is especially useful for capturing the voices, stories and memories of individuals and communities who might not otherwise be represented in history books.
It can provide rich detail about the daily lives and experiences of people who are not famous or powerful. In order to preserve the interviews for future generations, oral histories are usually recorded, transcribed and placed in a library or archive.
The voices of Floyd, McGoldrick and Wadsworth during their respective lifetimes were front and center in the community as passionate activists for improving the lives of their fellow citizens. Because they all were very intense about their missions, Jim, Ray and Ann could be a bit scary to those who disagreed or lacked the commitment for the various causes each championed.
Instead of being a fly on the wall, I would have loved to have been in the room at a Princeton Public Library Voices session with each one of these remarkable individuals when they were still alive.
Questions that might have been asked include: “What are your best memories of Princeton” or “How would you describe Princeton to someone who never has been here?” “What made you focus on your particular priority for Princeton?“ “How do you think you have changed your community?”
At each memorial service, I gleaned little tidbits I previously never knew about these community service giants. Jim Floyd had a “soft” side, reflected in the love of his family (sobbing at the news of his wife Fanny’s death), enjoyment of cruises and passion for jazz, to the extent that internationally famous jazz trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, “out of love and respect for Jim,” he said, was one of the jazz musicians who performed at Jim’s funeral.
Ann McGoldrick, known for her direct, no frills and insightful opinions when she served on the Princeton zoning and school boards, wrote out detailed instructions for her funeral service – 15 years ago, when she had no inkling of when or how she would die. She banned any eulogies in her service, but of course that did not prevent everyone from eulogizing her contributions to the community outside of the church.
Ray Wadsworth was a member and chaplain of the Red Knights, an international firefighters motorcycle club, whose members gave a touching tribute to him at the service. Learning these tidbits whetted my appetite for the impossible – more stories from them in their own voices.
The Stile/Florio conversation format – mirroring the format of The Voices Project – lent itself to a host of fascinating revelations about the governor personally and professionally. Reflecting on his personal traits that characterized his political career, Gov. Florio indicated his love for political independence and hatred of political shackles fueled his efforts to act in the best interests of New Jersey’s citizens. He referred to the famous Janis Joplin lyric from “Me & Bobby McGee” – Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.
Best of all, as I soaked up words of wisdom from Gov. Florio, I knew it was possible to hear more from him. I would love to get Gov. Florio and his wife Lucinda to participate in a Voices session, and hear how they interacted with the community during his term as governor. I feel an urgency to have as many Princeton people as possible participate in the Voices process before they no longer can participate. My list includes those with extensive Wikipedia entries to those without a Facebook or Twitter account.
Thus far, only five interviews have taken place. “But I’d be happy to take suggestions of specific people to reach out to for the project. In terms of collecting, we are interested in hearing the stories of all Princetonians, whether they’re new to the area or have lived here for many years,” said Hannah in a most welcoming voice.
Questions? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.