Voices of the Past program allows history to speak for itself

Trudie Duxbury’s father flew biplanes in the First World War, in the 1950s her mother became the first woman to chair the Greater Victoria School Board and Duxbury herself has acted in a Hollywood movie.

Her father, William (Mac) McGill, founded McGill and Orme Pharmacy at the start of the Great Depression. Her mother, Gertrude, was a life-long children’s advocate. Young Trudie knew Canadian feminist pioneer Nellie McClung as a family friend.

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With a history like that, 87-year-old Duxbury has compiled combination scrapbooks and written accounts of stories from her parents and late husband Jim, a Victoria-based urologist.

“I’ve done my mom, my dad, my husband, then I thought I’d better do myself,” Duxbury said in an interview at her assisted-living apartment in Oak Bay.

Duxbury, a tiny woman who speaks with the energy and vitality of a teenager, remembers her stories with a recall more vivid than many teens can recall their breakfast.

“What I’m trying to do is talk some of the people here [at the residence] into writing some of their stories down,” Duxbury said this week.

“I think of all the stories I hear in this place and they could just be forgotten.”

Her enthusiasm and vivid memories make her almost a poster child for Voices of the Past, a new program by the Victoria Genealogical Society.

When volunteers, such as Duxbury, contact the society, they are met by a volunteer who records some of their stories and posts them on the society’s website with any appropriate pictures.

Duxbury recounted her memories of a movie crew that filmed the Second World War propaganda film Commandos Strike at Dawn. It was 1942 and Finlayson Arm, near her family’s cabin, stood in for a Norwegian fjord.

“I’m in the film, right at the beginning,” Dixbury said. “[Actor Paul Muni] says ‘Good morning, girls,’ and we say, ‘Good morning.’ ”

Merv Scott, program director for the Victoria Genealogical Society, said genealogy as a hobby, pastime and even a commercial venture has taken off in the past few decades.

Vacationers take genealogy sea cruises on which guests listen to lectures and workshops. At least five cable TV shows on the subject are now being aired. There are phone apps with GPS to allow devotees to take photographs of headstones and post them online with their locations.

Governments are posting census records online. Hundreds of thousands of volunteers index them according to accessible identifiers, such as place and names, making it much easier to trace your family tree.

“The people who are involved in genealogy are very helpful,” Scott said.

“When I was doing my own family tree, people from around the globe would help me with my research. That’s the cool part about genealogy.”

But there is something missing from recorded births and deaths, Scott said. That is the human element, facts such as how a husband and wife met, their marriage proposal, or their grief over lost children.

“There is always so much there than just names and dates,” Scott said.

What started as a one-time program called Ask Granny, in which the society sought out seniors residences to record stories, is now the ongoing project Voices of the Past.

Scott said he normally conducts an interview and asks the participant to speak to one topic or subject. He then takes away the recordings and cuts them down to about 10 minutes. If the narrative is any longer, he makes two or more stories.

Scott said one person listening to the recordings was moved to tears over the humanity and detail of the recollections, which mostly come from seniors.

“They’ve got all these stories in their heads that are going to be lost,” he said. “We’ve got to get them recorded somehow.”

Participants are not all seniors. Voices of the Past participant Sula Brown is only 42, but her background touches on some fascinating segments of North American history.

Brown has roots in the cultures of the First Nations of Saskatchewan, Oklahoma and African-Americans.

Now studying nursing in Victoria, Brown has tales of her First Nations grandfather, a natural healer, who inspired her to pursue health care as a career. She also has some family mysteries, such as how her African-American father came to be born on a First Nations reserve in Oklahoma.

Brown is now recording a few stories about her background. It’s not only for herself, but also for her 19-year-old son, who is seeking to enlist in the U.S. Army, and her relatives spread across Western Canada and the U.S..

“I’m trying to gather as much information as I can about my family,” she said. “That way, if something happens, there will be a place where the family can go.”

To learn more about Voices of the Past or any other programs offered by the Victoria Genealogical Society, go to victoriags.org.

rwatts@timescolonist.com

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