Seniors tell stories of lives

Vincent Papsan reminisced about his first date with his wife-to-be, Thelma, and how he was a laundryman for the Navy stationed in Hawaii during World War II.

Geraldine Cookerly remembered growing up in a coal miner's camp in the hills of Kentucky and how she always kept her nose tucked in a book.


And John M. Holzinger recalled eating the sour beef and dumplings his mother made when he was a boy and earning $5 a week at his first job making sheet metal.

A handful of seniors at Jenkins Senior Living Community in Southwest Baltimore opened up their collective memories yesterday as part of an oral history project designed to document stories that haven't necessarily been forgotten - but that, these days, are rarely told.


All it took was an old-fashioned tape recorder and a little bit of prodding.

"I'm going to hit 'Record' and 'Play,' and we're going to start," said Esta Baker, one of several volunteers from Business Volunteers Unlimited Maryland who conducted the oral histories as part of a Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service, before she began asking Papsan questions.

Interview begins

And off the 88-year-old interviewee went, recalling how his mother was laid out in a casket in the family's living room after she died of the flu. He was probably about age 2 at the time, he said, and tried to climb up the side to get a peek.

Baker also interviewed Cookerly and her husband, Carl, both 75, who jointly recalled how their friends, unbeknownst to them, invited them both to a birthday party so they would meet - and maybe fall in love.

Carl Cookerly had forgotten how long they dated before they married at a Baptist church in Arnold. But not his wife.

"We met in April and got married in September," Geraldine Cookerly said, sitting in their room at St. Elizabeth Rehabilitation and Nursing Center, behind St. Agnes HealthCare.

As a girl growing up in Kentucky, she recalled, she would escape her family's home for a big, flat rock, where she would lie down and inhale stories: Gone With the Wind, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Little Women. When she didn't have any books, she read encyclopedias.


Coming to Baltimore, where one of her brothers lived, was something of a culture shock. All the houses were clumped together, and policemen were on the corners. The people at work, where she was a bookkeeper, made fun of her Kentucky twang.

Baker, 54, a fellow with the Governor's Office on Service and Volunteerism, explained between interviews the importance of oral histories.

"It's not just your history," she said. "It's not your family's history. It's how you fit into the greater neighborhood. That neighborhood just happens to be the world that we live in."

The tapes collected yesterday will be donated to the archive of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture. The new downtown museum, at Pratt and President streets, is scheduled to open to the public this summer.

As part of the project, volunteer Ros Thomas interviewed Holzinger, 92, who sat in a wheelchair and jiggled his fingers while he talked.

Drafted in 1942


Born in Baltimore, Holzinger remembered attending school at the Church of the Fourteen Holy Martyrs and being drafted into the Army in 1942. He talked about walking down Baltimore Street on Halloween, when everyone was decked out in their costumes. And he recalled shopping at Lexington and Hollins markets.

Thomas said she has tried to record oral histories in her own family. She is a member of the Baltimore chapter of the Afro American Historical and Genealogical Society.

"We have to pass the story down," she said. "We have to keep the story alive."