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Students' link to Pickersgill residents is written across generations

Kim Kern, a senior at Loch Raven High School and member of the school's English Honor Society, braced herself for the worse when she was told of the assignment to interview residents at Towson's Pickersgill Retirement Community and write their life stories.

"I expected it to be really boring," she said candidly.

But she and fellow student Devin Herlihy got much more than they bargained for when they were paired up with Josephine Neville, 91.

"She's our new granny," Kern said.

On Thursday, May 24, students from the school came to Pickersgill to share the results of the writing project, which began earlier this year when Loch Raven English teachers Tracey Hanley and Gail Shaffer learned that Pickersgill wanted to document the lives of people in its skilled nursing area.

Lenore D'Adamo, volunteer coordinator at Pickersgill, said an administrator thought it would be nice for staff members and nurses to learn about the patients they were caring for.

After the biographies of 35 residents were read to the gathered group, Kern, Herlihy, Neville — and Neville's daughter, Joannene Maynard — chatted in the back of the room long after many other students had left.

The biography written by Kern and Herlihy told of Neville's life growing up in Baltimore, how she loves her family, giraffes and teddy bears, and is "secretly a party girl."

Neville said the two made no errors — high praise from the 26-year English teacher, though these students had clearly found a special place in their biography subject's heart.

The two students had researched their subject over a pair of interview sessions, and returned a third day for lunch at the center's "Pickersgrille" with Neville — where the Pickersgill resident gave the girls necklaces as gifts.

They both wore them to the reading Thursday.

Maynard said she had already heard all about the two Loch Raven students before driving from Kingsville for the event.

Her mother, she said, "talked so much about the girls and how great they are. She really looked forward to their visits. It was great that Pickersgill did this."

Kern and Herlihy weren't the only students who thought they'd lucked out with their interviewee.

Nathaniel Cohen, 17 of Towson, Brad Franke, 18, of Glen Arm and Nick Belkoff, 18 of Baldwin, teamed up to interview gregarious nonagenarian Bill Bailey, who was heartily enjoying the stories as they were being read.

In their biography, the group noted Bailey's love for John Wayne movies, trains and Food Network TV star Rachel Ray. After the interviews were done, they bought him a train to add to his collection.

"He was the best guy we could have asked for," Franke said.

The stories were framed in plastic to be posted outside of the residents' doors, so visitors could better understand where the residents were on their life journey before they arrived at Pickersgill.

In Bailey's biography, his scribes urged anyone who "loves chicken or just wants to have a charming conversation" to check in on Bailey.

Others had similarly rewarding experiences in writing about their subjects, even if the process of getting their stories was much different. Hailey Lynch and Christie Moyer, both 18 of Towson, teamed up to document the lives of Jack Creighton and Nadine Sanborn.

They told Sanborn's story — she was a tissue technician for 25 years at Johns Hopkins and had no children, but adopted six rescue dogs — using information from family members. They also had a hard time interviewing Creighton, who is living with dementia.

"At first, we didn't know how to take it, because he was hard to communicate with, but once we got into a rhythm, it got easier," Moyer said.

It helped that perhaps the most interesting part of his life was one he remembered well: Creighton flew more than 50 missions in B-17 bombers during World War II.

"We asked him a lot of questions about that," Moyer said. "He was a little confused about the rest of his life, but he knew about that."

The rest of the writers were able to coax wonderful details out of their subjects as well.

Bunny Froelicher spent the first 12 years of her life in China, and on her 92nd birthday, flew to Bermuda for a family reunion.

Art Delano — a distant cousin of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt — was an engineer for Pan-American Airlines and was flying on the plane when the first baby was delivered mid-flight.

Dorothy Lloyd is a "Republican Baptist and proud of it."

Last week's gathering was filled with warm recollections and stories that spanned the generations. While many of the readers were at vastly different points of their lives than the people they wrote about, the afternoon was punctuated by Gene Dunkel reading the biography written about his wife, Faye.

Faye and Gene recently celebrated their 66th wedding anniversary, and he had a gleam in his eye when he read the story of how they met.

When Gene returned to a welcome home party after his service in World War II, his sister urged her friend Faye to come and meet her "cute brother."

"That's me," he said with a smile.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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