The Way it Was: Columnist comments on reader feedback over the years

by john straka Published:

I've been writing these columns for 26 years as of early February. Almost all of what I write is from memory. I do very little research. Once in a while I remember the wrong thing and my readers correct me. Like the time I wrote about Roscoe Turner's airplane as a BG racer. It was a GB not a BG. Not only did I get the real name, I also learned what the initials stand for.

In one of my early columns I wrote about the cemetery at the Lutheran church in Maple Heights. The first burial in that cemetery was an infant girl. In those long ago days, there were no vaccinations, no antibiotics and many infant deaths. Children died from scarlet fever, diptheria, whooping cough, measles and other childhood diseases.

Shortly after that column appeared in the paper, I got a letter from an elderly man living somewhere in south central Ohio. He had received a clipping of that column from someone who knew about him and that little girl who died. She was the man's baby sister. He survived the childhood diseases. She didn't.

I wrote a column about Grace and her family. Years later, when she died, I wrote a tribute to her and reviewed her life story. Shortly thereafter I got a letter in the mail from an attorney somewhere south of Maple Heights. I thought I might be in big trouble because of something I wrote.

The attorney was one of Grace's distant relatives. As a result of her death, someone sent him the column I had written about her. He wanted to know where I got all the information in the column. I explained that it was from an interview with her and that she had approved it before it was published. He then told me that some of what was in the column was not known by any of the relatives.

A similar situation was when I recounted some of the tall tales I had heard from Jim, who was a talented Irish storyteller. He would be talking about something and all of a sudden you would hear him talking about leprechauns and fairies. It made you wonder where did he switch over from fact to fantasy.

After the story appeared in print, I got a phone call from a lady who said, "I'm Jim's daughter." That sounded like trouble. Did she call to object to my writing about her father's off-the-wall stories? No. She called to thank me because all family members and many friends enjoyed his stories and wished there could be some way to let others know about them.

My columns have led to exchanging recipes with readers. One for pineapple pie, another for Bohemian potato dumplings and one for dill gravy which is a dish made with hard boiled eggs, milk and mashed potatoes.

When I mentioned the Svet, a Bohemian language newspaper, a reader said she remembers it as the Novy Svet. I thought about that for awhile, and remembered that maybe the original Svet later on became the Novy Svet. A bit of research proved I was right.

One time I mentioned some of the characters in a few old-time radio programs and a reader sent me copies of pages in a book about that subject. When I wrote about the Spruce Goose, a huge airplane built by Howard Hughes, a reader informed me about where it is now. Long ago, golf clubs had names like driver, brassie, spoon and niblick. When I brought my niblick to the newspaper office, one of the young reporters handled it like it was made of pure gold.

I never expected my columns would lead to my being invited to be guest speaker at a variety of different places. I've given talks at historical societies, nursing homes, schools, AARP meetings, PTA meetings, and to clubs and other organizations. I have a few favorite subjects that include demonstrations and audience participation. Those are aways fun. I like to talk about old-time homemade toys and games and when I do that for a group that includes younger women, I usually can get at least one lady to jump rope. That always gets a round of applause.

Sometimes I give a talk and get the audience to share their memories which leaves me with nothing more to do than to ask a few questions. If I can stir up a few personal memories, people will be eager to tell their stories.

It makes me feel good to be able to answer a question that someone has been puzzled by for many years. One lady's childhood memory included going to Geauga Lake park by train.

Everyone she spoke to said there never was train service to the park. I assured her that her memories were correct. The train ran on the far side of the lake and a launch took picnickers to the park. As a child, she thought the boat ride was inside the park.

In the early days of my writing, I did a series of interviews of longtime Maple Heights residents and their families. I've been asked, "How do you get people to tell you all that stuff?"

As far as I can remember, I've had only two negative responses to my columns. One time a reader objected to my writing about minstrel shows, and another time there was an objection to my saying Calvary Cemetery was "dirty." I meant it was old and not as well kept as the newer part, or as a newer cemetery.

Sometimes I wonder what will happen maybe 50 or 100 years from now, when someone gets to read my columns. They will be looking at a collection of stories that not only reflect today's lifestyles, but give a good lesson in recent history.

One of my readers said I was "charming."

Old -- yes. Charming, I don't know.

Editor's note: Straka can be reached via email at wenceslas88plus@gmail.com.

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