The Oxford Project

Uploaded by HooverPresLib on 01.02.2011

Well thanks very much everyone for coming and seeing this wonderful exhibit. And of
course before I do my introduction, I want to put in a plug for those of you who are
interested in what you’ve seen thus far or following this presentation decide you
want to learn more, we have copies of The Oxford Project in our gift shop, reasonably
priced. It’s the paperback edition that’s just come out. Steve will be happy to sign
copies. And I’m pleased to tell you that Mayor Don Saxton, the mayor of Oxford, Iowa
is here. Holly Poeschel who is also in the exhibit is here and I’m sure they’d be
willing to sign the books for you as well. So, that’s the end of my commercial announcement.
But, if you are a member of the Association you do of course get your ten percent discount
as well. Well, our speaker tonight is Stephen G. Bloom.
Steve is Professor and Bessie Dutton Murray Professional Scholar of Journalism and Mass
Communication at the University of Iowa where he teaches narrative journalism and magazine
reporting and writing among other topics. Prior to joining the Iowa faculty in 1993,
Steve was a staff writer at the Sacramento Bee, the San Jose Mercury News, the Los Angeles
Times, and the Dallas Morning News. He also was Brazilian correspondent for the Field
News Service and national news editor at the Latin America Daily Post.
Steve’s work has also appeared in the Smithsonian Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, the
Los Angeles Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington Post, and many other national
publications as well as on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.”
His non-fiction book, Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America, was published
in September 2000. The book focuses on fundamental changes confronting that small, predominately
Lutheran, Iowa town after 150 Lubavitcher Jews settle there, buying the slaughterhouse,
and become the community’s new power brokers. The book was a selection of Book-of-the-Month
Club, as well as the Quality Paperback Books Club. “Postville” the book is required
reading in more than 150 college and university courses. A dramatic play inspired by the book
is scheduled to debut in 2011. Steve’s most recent book, Tears of a Mermaid:
The Secret Story of Pearls, was published in November 2009. This non-fiction detective
story chronicles the cultural, economic, and political saga of pearls, the world’s first
gem. Steve has been honored with the Iowa Author of the Year Award, as well as with
fellowships at the MacDowell Colony and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.
Now in September 2008, Steve and photographer Peter Feldstein co-authored The Oxford Project
which of course is the subject of our exhibit and examines life in Oxford, Iowa. Reviews
and stories about the Project have appeared in The New York Times, on ABC World News Tonight,
CBS Sunday Morning, and in many other national publications. The book won the prestigious
Alex Award from the American Library Association, as well as being named Gold Medal recipient
for Outstanding Book of the Year from the Independent Publisher Association.
Please help me welcome Stephen Bloom to the stage to talk about The Oxford Project.
Okay. I’m delighted to be here. Thank you very much for showing up on this very cold
evening. What I want to do is give you a brief preview of The Oxford Project. Let me ask,
is there anyone, who here is from Oxford? Could you raise your hand? Okay. We’ve got
three people. Okay. So what I want -- this is like a class at the University of Iowa.
We’ve got a lot to do in the next fifteen to twenty minutes. Let me start.
Okay. Most of you – can we dim the lights a little bit? Can we do that, Jim? – Okay.
For those of you who don’t know Peter Feldstein, Peter is a wonderful, weird, and wacky colleague
of mine. And Peter, in 1984 came up with a novel idea, which was to photograph every
single person in the city of Oxford. Peter did not want to just interview the mayor,
just interview the bank president. He wanted to interview every single person. The idea
was, at first, stunning because we don’t usually look at a city that way. We look at
a city as being filled with important people. And those are the people who are going to
get photographed. The mayor gets photographed, the bank president gets photographed; maybe
the city council gets photographed. Peter wanted to turn that autocratic notion on its
head, and make it very democratic. He wanted to interview every single person in town.
Peter sent out flyers. He posted tag boards all over town and said I want to take your
picture. And the first question the people asked Peter was, “How much is it going to
cost me?” Peter said, “Nothing, it’s going to be for free.” The idea in Peter’s
mind was that everyone is created equal. And so Peter began taking photographs. He didn’t
ask people to show up in their Sunday best. He didn’t ask people to jump up and down.
It was really over in a flash. Just like that. Peter was able to photograph six hundred and
seventy three people out of the 677 people who lived in Oxford. So, everyone cooperated,
save three people. And that was that. Peter had a show in the American Legion hall and
people looked at each others’ photographs. Peter put the negatives away. And twenty-one
years later, Peter and I got to talking. And I asked Peter, “Hey whatever happened to
those photographs?” Peter said, “I’ve still got them. Some of them are scratched;
they’re in a file cabinet.” I said, “What would happen if you would photograph the same
people again?” Well, Peter said, “I don’t know if I can do that. A lot of people have
died. A lot of people have moved away.” I said, “Yeah, but Peter, if twenty percent
have died and twenty percent have moved away, that still leaves around three hundred and
fifty people.” You can sense the excitement in my voice because
I just knew in my bones, in my corpuscles of my blood that this was a great story. And
Peter said, “I’ll do it.” So Peter came back a week later with six photographs of
people whose images he had captured twenty-two years ago. And he created diptychs – or
pictures set right next to each other. And you could have scraped my jaw off the floor.
I mean, people had changed, but people were the same. They were the same people, but they
were different. Twenty years is a lot! And Peter said, “You know, this is really pretty
interesting. How would you like to interview these people? Because they have stories; a
lot’s happened in twenty years.” Thus began The Oxford Project.
So let me take you through a tour of Oxford. But first, let me show you – you know Peter’s
not here. Peter is caring for his brother who is ill. And Peter is in, actually in south
Florida right now. So I’m going to be Peter and Steve put together for the next fifteen
minutes. Peter, some of Peter’s predecessors helped frame this project. And this was a
project that was done by a photographer whose name is Mike Disfarmer. And Mike Disfarmer
took photographs similarly to Peter of many people in his town, which was Heber Springs,
Arkansas. And so this gives you an idea of sort of what Peter hoped to recreate. In fact,
Peter really created something far different, and really in a certain way, far more majestic.
Okay, so these are the photographs. These are called contact sheets that were from 1984.
Okay. And then this is the first of a hundred photographs, a little bit more than a hundred
photographs and a hundred interviews that I did. Actually, Darrel Lindley has died.
One of the interesting issues of oral history is you got to get people to talk because ultimately
people will not be around forever. And so we hope that, in some kind of way, in perhaps
five hundred or a thousand years from now, when we’re not around that someone will
look at The Oxford Project and say, “Gee, this is what it was like to live in a small
town in a state – what was that state called? – Iowa; in a country called the United
States. Because, generally we live in a celebrity driven environment, we’re not really interested
in interviewing the local butcher. But I’m interested in interviewing that local butcher,
and giving us the privilege of seeing what his daily life is all alike – is like.
You’ll notice that – you know, I never used a tape recorder by the way. I wrote all
this stuff out in longhand, the old fashioned way. And you’ll notice that there’s a
natural cadence or rhythm to how we talk as people. And so we’ll just go through a couple
of these. I’m not a man of few words so we just leave this alone. But just look how
Darrel talked to me. “I shoot ‘em, bleed ‘em, then skin ‘em.
I do hogs, cattle, goats, buffalo, and sheep. I use a .22 Magnum. After I shoot ‘em, I
cut their throats. Hogs, I stick ‘em underneath in their brisket.” I have no idea where
the brisket to a hog is, but I really love how Darrell describes it. And you’ll notice
that each of these stories, each of these stories has a beginning a middle and an end.
There’s a trajectory to these stories. What I tried to do was shrink wrap the stories.
Interviews lasted actually anywhere from twenty minutes to five hours. And I just sort of
took out all of the excess and got it down to the essential. We’ll just look at the
bottom. I really love how Darrell ends this, “I don’t have a lot of disappointments.
I wish I had charged people more, maybe then I’d have more people – I’d have more
money now.”
This is sort of interesting. When Peter caught Calvin Colony in 1984, Calvin brought along
his pet; a pet lion. And so we’ll just read a little bit of this. “I’m a plumber,
but I’m also a diver for the county. I dive for drowning victims, hunting accidents, snowmobiles
that go through the ice. It’s black down there and you’re crawling through the logs.
I’ve probably pulled out twenty bodies since 1973.” Jumping down a little bit. “For
the last six years, I’ve been going to a resort in Jamaica called Hedonism. On one
beach, you have to have your bottoms on. On the other beach, you can’t lay out unless
you’re naked. You’ll see people having sex if you stay around long enough. All the
alcohol you want is included in the price. It’s a good time. You don’t have to take
many clothes. - - Laughter - - So there’s a sense of raw humor, and also there’s really
a sense of poignancy I think in Calvin. Look what he’s covering. - - Laughter - - After
all, here’s a man who lays out at the beach at a club called Hedonism.
We came across some amazing fascinating stories. This is a very long story but I’ll read
just a little bit of this. “My mom left me at a church when I was three.” What she
really means to say is that, ‘my mom abandoned me when I was three.’ “She used to travel
with the carnival, and the carnival ended up going broke in Iowa. When my mom and my
stepfather had a hard day, they’d take it out on me.” This cute little girl.” So
she left me at this church with our dog Freddy.” There’s Freddy by the way. “And she pinned
a note to my shirt that said, ‘Please take care of her. We can’t any longer.’ Freddy
ran away and I got scared. I started crying. A couple heard me and called the police. They
sent me to a foster home, which I hated. When I was four or five, I moved to Blanche’s
place in Oxford. My favorite movie was Annie. I watched that over and over with Blanche.
Well of course her favorite movie was Annie, Little Orphan Annie. We’ll just drop to
the bottom. “On my eighteenth birthday, my mother blew into town. She wanted us to
go on The Montel Williams Show and say how she really never wanted to give me up. She
asked me to move in with her in Florida and start a new life. That didn’t work out,
so I came back to Des Moines, where I’ve been for six years.” Okay, so what’s she
doing now? “I met a guy from Honduras and he didn’t speak a lick of English. I got
pregnant, then we broke up. After that, I really got into partying. I’d stay out till
three or four in the morning. I liked drinking. I met another guy at a bar, and I got pregnant
again. Now I live with the fathers of both my children and another guy. Nothing for me
has been normal, so why should now be normal?” Really interesting and poignant. And if you
look at Brianne there’s really a poignancy. There’s really almost a special spirituality
that she emits.
And you know, the idea with these, these are triptychs, three panels, the idea with these,
and you will all see this, I think, when you look at the exhibition next door, is that
you know the images are arresting. You learn more about those who are photographed; those
who make up those images, when you read the panel in the middle. And you have a greater
understanding for the people in panels one and three. As you have a greater understanding
you go back to the narrative and you go back and forth back and forth. And you really learn
an awful lot Brianne and the ninety-nine other people who are featured in the book.
Hey! Guess who this is. This is Blanche. Blanche was the foster mother. Blanche was the woman
with whom Brianne watched Annie over and over and over again. But Blanche is different.
To Blanche, Brianne was just one of five hundred kids.
“I first heard about foster parenting when I was a waitress at the Red Garter.” Don’t
you love that? A waitress at the Red Garter. “I always liked babysitting, so I thought
I’d give it a try. We started forty-one years ago, and we’ve had five hundred children
live with us. I had one girl for fourteen years, and others for just a couple of weeks.
We used to take in newborn babies, but I quit because it was too hard to let them go. One
girl I got when she was three -- her mother was running with the carnival, and she left
the girl and a dog on the church steps.” Well we know who that is and you’ll be able
to see both of those triptychs next door. Going right to the end, “You turn their
values around. For some, it works. For others, it don’t.”
This is Jim Hoyt. I’m going to save Jim Hoyt. Jim Hoyt is an American hero. Jim Hoyt,
as you’ll see, is – Jim Hoyt died two weeks before the book came out, a year and
a half ago. Jim was the last living of the first four American soldiers who liberated
Buchenwald concentration camp. He has an horrific story that has never left him. You will read
about that next door. This actually is at Buchenwald. And this is in honor of Jim. This
was erected after Jim died.
Here’s a cowboy. Iowa has cowboys and there’s a cowboy who likes to ride bucking broncos
at the rodeo. We can talk just very briefly about Joe Booth. Joe, over here has a lot
of bravado. He’s a tough guy. I mean after all, “In 1984, I was in the top ten in the
United Rodeo Association in Bareback Riding. Jo-Jo Booth was what they called me.” Twenty
two years later it looks like someone’s let the air out of Joe. You know, you look
at the hat and you look at the hat. They’re the same, but they’re very different. That’s
what time will do.
Pat Henkelman. Pat Henkelman in 1984 was captured by Peter when she was coming back from the
grocery store. And Pat said, “Peter, do you want me to put down this sack of groceries?”
and Peter said, “No.” Pat’s leaning a little bit to the left in 1984. She’s
leaning a little bit more to the left in 2005. Pat’s wearing the same shoes. I should say
the same kind of shoes. She’s updated with some different glasses. And Pat has a striking
story to tell. And I’m going to allow you to experience that story for yourself next
door. Just want to show you something, what I really love about Pat. Right at the end
of the interview, Pat said this to me, “There used to be a hat store in town. I wish it
still was here. I love hats.”
This is Amber Carroll. Amber is actually the only interview I did over the phone. Amber
lives in Memphis now. And, I’ll read you a couple – you know wow look what happened,
right. Look what can happen from an eight year old to a twenty; thirty year old. And
she says, “I love purses -- the kind that are large enough to carry a blow drier in
them. And I also love shoes, especially high heels. If they’re smokin’ hot, they can
make a pair of jeans into a sexy outfit. And hats. I love hats, too.” So there’s a
connection. You know, there’s generation one and generation three. There’s a connection.
Amber is a little bit like Pat. Different, but she’s carrying on the heritage, the
tradition, the legacy, of women who like hats.
Quintessential Iowa farmer. Quintessential Iowa outdoorsman. Adventurer. This is Joe
Prymek. In the book you’ll see two of Joe Prymek’s daughters interviewed. And you
know, I love this. I’ll read you just a little bit. “I do a lot of bow hunting.
I take a shower, a bath, then I use human-scent neutralizer.” Let me just stop right here.
Usually you take a shower to get rid of odor. Okay. But he takes it so that, so that no
deer will be able to pick up any scent. “I wash my clothes in stuff that makes them smell
like dirt.” Well you just took a shower to get rid of the dirt. Okay. “Then I douse
myself with buck urine. I’ve got four-hundred-and fifty dollars worth of camouflage clothing.
I go up twenty feet in a tree. You sit there for four or five hours. Hell, sometimes it’s
longer. I start in the morning when it’s dark. I take a pop and coffee, maybe a few
pieces of candy, sometimes a turkey or ham sandwich. If you gotta pee, you do it in a
milk bottle.” Well, that came from my question. I said “Well Joe, I mean, if you take pop
or coffee and you’re up there for four to five hours, what do you do?”
Here’s a woman who used to work in a strip club in Phoenix called the Kitty Kat. She
was a good pole dancer, she says.
This is her father. Her father’s the preacher in town. You know, he used to be a buck skinner.
He was a re-enactor. He used to shoot muzzle-loaded rifles, throwing knives and tomahawks. He
was obsessed with coon hunting. “It wasn’t about the kill. It was the chase.” And now
what we see is that he’s still involved with the chase. And he talks about that. He
talks about founding a church called Anchored in Faith. He’s done more than a hundred
baptisms. He does them in a horse tank. I want to also note that the year 2028 will
be when Jesus returns. So says Pastor Hoyt. Pastor Honn, excuse me. “I may be off by
a year or two, but I believe it’ll be around then when the Resurrection will take place.”
It seems to me you need to me much more exacting. I mean 2029, 2027, but that’s his prediction.
Very interesting, Barb Boyle. “Sage and Zeus are Great Pyrenees. They’d been abused
and dumped. I took four weeks to catch them. I
used another Great Pyrenees as bait. I laid flat on my back with treats in both hands.
To this day, I can’t get them into a pickup truck. If I try, they go crazy. They’re
terrified of men, especially men in seed caps. Reggie is the alpha dog. He’ll back Sage
and Zeus into a corner.” Then we find out that, “My mother was sixteen when I was
born. She hid her pregnancy by wearing baggy clothes. One night under a full blue moon,
she went to a park and delivered me by herself.” Wow! What a story she’s got. And I’ll
let you read the rest of the triptych next door. Ultimately, she does find her family.
She does find her brother. But really what we find is that this is her family. This is
the family that has girded her; that has protected her.
Okay. Another interesting story. My don’t we change?
Another interesting story; I love this. “I’m the black sheep of the family. I read everything
I could get my hands on. I still get a lot of grief for having a college degree.” Interesting.
Part of the legacy of some small towns in Iowa; he gets grief for having gone to college.
Here’s Hunter Tandy. Sort of a cute goofy kid at age eight wearing “gimme a break”
on his t-shirt to an enigmatic morose thirty year old.
Kathy Tandy describes an up and down battle with weight. It’s interesting. There’s
a bunch of wisdom and maturity that Kathy now absolutely radiates which she did not
have, I think, in 1984.
Another interesting story, very interesting story. This happens to be the butcher’s
granddaughter. The butcher is Darrell Lindley, who I introduced you to right at the beginning.
Here’s a man who says, “I’ve been called Frank Sinatra. People think I look like him.”
Notice how this guy is standing exactly the same! And no one prompted him. Okay. I like
this. One of the things that The Oxford Project has taught me is that life is made up of moments.
And one of Tim’s moments, perhaps the pivotal moment in his entire life is this, “On the
way home one day, I stopped in at Slim’s, and that’s where I met Robin. Today we have
two girls, ages sixteen and thirteen.” Tim always wanted to go to college in Hawaii that
was his plan. He got a job doing construction to save up enough money. He says to me, “I
feel like George Bailey, the Jimmy Stewart character in It’s a Wonderful Life. That
trip to Hawaii was my ticket out.”
Okay I just want to show you one or two more. Then I’ll let you go to wander the streets
of Oxford, right next door in the Hoover Museum and Library. Interesting what can happen.
And that’s it. I welcome your interest in The Oxford Project. It really isn’t a story
about Oxford. It’s a story about us. Thank you very much.