Hopatcong Man Building History at Rutgers
One of dozens of undergrads who have interned to preserve the past.
Story Courtesy of Rutgers Today
By Ken Branson
Working at the Rutgers Oral History Archives put David D’Onofrio on a career path he had not considered before.
For two years he was involved in interviewing, transcribing and editing conversations. Listening to military veterans talk about their lives made D’Onofrio realize he wanted to play a role in preserving these stories.
D’Onofrio, and Hopatcong resident Kyle Downey, is one of dozens of Rutgers undergraduates who has interned at the Rutgers Oral History Archives and played a key role recording individual accounts of history. The students help preserve the stories of people who participated in wars and other major events that happened before they were born. Without the archives, these accounts would have been lost.
Today, as the special collections librarian at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, D’Onofrio preserves veterans’ stories for a living.
“What I’m doing at the Academy is an extension of what I learned at Rutgers, and it’s the coolest job in the world,’’ D’Onofrio said.
The Rutgers Oral History Archives started in 1994, conceived and initially funded by the Class of 1942, to collect stories of the World War II generation, many of them veterans. The archives take on two or three interns each semester and train them in oral history techniques, helping students engage in research in order to bring new resources into the classroom. The archives have expanded their scope to include just about anyone with a Rutgers or New Jersey connection who has a story to tell. There are now 650 histories, 26,000 pages of transcripts, accessible online, with more being processed.
“Oral history helps us understand the past experiences of ordinary men and women, because few people write down their own histories or leave extensive records,” said John W. Chambers, professor of history and an academic advisor to the Archives.
D’Onofrio felt he had a personal connection to the archives’ work because his own grandfather, a World
War II veteran, never spoke about his military service. “Ultimately, he died without anyone having heard his story,” D’Onofrio said. “What surprised me (about the archives) was how much veterans had to say, having come from an environment where nobody talked about the war, to an environment where people sat down for two hours – sometimes, for six or eight hours – to talk about what they had done,” he said.
More than 400 undergraduates have participated, with staff members, in conducting oral histories and in editing, annotating or otherwise processing interview transcripts, either as part of Chambers’ class, Oral History of the American Experience in World War II, as public history interns or scholarship students at the archives. Chambers said students enjoy learning oral history methodology because it provides a different approach to understanding the past.
“They learn history because they’re doing it; they’re practicing oral history,” Chambers said.
Kyle Downey, who served as a summer intern this year, also began working at the archives by transcribing interviews and eventually talking to participants on his own. Downey will graduate in December with a double major in history and political science, and hopes to be a history teacher.
As an intern, Downey began working on an index of the roughly 100 women whose histories reside in the Archives. “I read each history, and then compiled a short biography, so that anyone looking at that history has some idea what’s in it,” he said.
Both the oral history archives director, Shaun Illingworth, and the assistant director Nick Molnar, started working as interns at the oral history archives while undergraduates at Rutgers.
Illingworth, class of 2001, has interviewed hundreds of people since his internship in 1998 and says he does everything he can to help his subjects relax, remember and talk.
“I tell everybody, ‘This is just a casual conversation,’” Illingworth said, “This is not live TV, where you have to get everything right on the first take. If you can’t remember names or dates, that’s okay. We can cross-check with other sources. It’s your reactions, motivations and attitudes that give us insight into the events you lived through and helped shape.”
Molnar, class of 2005, was an intern in 2004 and went on to earn his Ph.D. in history in 2012. A Southeast Asian and immigration historian by training, he recognizes how ROHA’s work serves the varied interests of the entire historical community.
“We’re interviewing people about their entire lives,” he said. “Military might be a part of that, but afterward, they went on and went back to school, or got married, got jobs, had kids. They have a lot to talk about.”