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5 questions: Letting voices tell the stories

Mary Kuechenmeister has spent most of her life meeting with people, reading about people, talking to people. She’s told plenty of stories over the years through her work as a writer and broadcaster.

About three years ago, Kuechenmeister helped found the Story Preservation Initiative, an
organization that collects
oral histories of people who have made contributions to the arts or sciences, or have been eyewitnesses to major historical events.

The audio recordings feature painters, poets, astronauts and naturalists, among others.

Kuechenmeister has teamed up with the Library of Congress to store the audio collection and is working with New Hampshire Education Commissioner Virginia Barry to integrate it into
curricula at schools in the state.

The collection of the 30 or so oral histories she’s recorded so far can be found on the nonprofit group’s website,

And Sunday, the organization will hold a gathering at The Fells in Newbury, featuring Barry and former congressman Paul Hodes, who both sit on the group’s board of directors.

How did you get started with this project? It’s the combination of everything I have ever done. I have worked as a writer, I have a broadcast background, I’ve always had an interest in people’s stories. There’s this kind of thread that has gone through my whole life. I can kind of pull from all the various things I did, and this is what makes sense.

I really love it. I love learning about these people that are doing these incredible things or have lived through incredible experiences and meeting them. I consider myself, in that regard, to be one of the luckiest people alive, because it’s the passion that drives these people, it’s the intelligence that drives these people, it’s what inspired them. I
love meeting them, and over the course of doing what I’ve done, my life has become enriched. My knowledge base is greater, my thinking is broader, they get me thinking about things I didn’t think about before. So I love it. It’s really who I am.

How do you pick people to feature? Are they just New Hampshire-based? No, they are not just New Hampshire-based. But there are a lot of people (featured) from New Hampshire and New England. . . . There’s some core people that I know that I want, and so I just go after them. And then they become part of the mix. . . . And they introduce me to other people, because this isn’t
about celebrities, it’s about achievement. So I don’t know all these people; it’s not like I’m just going after the big
names, I’m going after the achievers.

Are you still looking for people to include in the project? Always. I don’t have an endgame for this. There will always be people and there are so many people that are appropriate to be in this collection, in my opinion. But right now, I probably have about 60 people either on my radar screen or who have been recommended to me. So I’m always looking for suggestions. If they fit it or not, I don’t know, but I can look into that. And whether I can record them or not, I don’t know – it depends on time, geography, all sorts of different things.

What do you look for that stands out in the people you record in these histories? People who have done something. I have a whole kind of separate group which features eyewitnesses to history, so they’ve just experienced something that is of historical or cultural significance. But beyond that, in the arts, sciences and humanities, we’re looking for people who are in whatever way breaking new ground – they’re changing the landscape, they’re adding to our body of knowledge, they’re on the forefront in some way, and it’s kind of hard to identify that, in some way of what they’re doing.

How are you going about helping to integrate this into curricula at schools? Virginia Barry sits on our board of directors. She has been in conversation with me. She’s really pinpointed specific schools where she thinks it would be good for Story Preservation Initiative there. So we’re in conversations with them now to get the oral histories into the schools either in the fall or early 2014. We
also have been in conversations with a couple private schools. These are ongoing conversations.

And there’s a woman that teaches in inner-city Bridgeport, Conn., that I’ve gotten to know. . . . And she’ll be integrating the oral histories into her classroom this fall.

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