Preserving history in words – The Daily Reflector

Senior citizens participate in a writing class at the Pitt County Senior Center on Monday afternoon. (Rhett Butler/The Daily Reflector)

Senior citizens participate in a writing class at the Pitt County Senior Center on Monday afternoon. (Rhett Butler/The Daily Reflector)

By Kim Grizzard

Sunday, July 14, 2013

A search for the name Parmalee Hawk on shows several titles by this author, published over a period of three decades. But the book the former East Carolina University professor is working on now is one she hopes almost no one will read.

Except her four children.

Hawk, who retired as director of teacher education at ECU in 2004, has spent the last five years back in the classroom as a student in Pitt Community College’s Family Stories Workshop. In this class, taught by author Patsy Baker O’Leary, the goal is not publication. It is preservation.

“It’s a matter of heritage,” said O’Leary, who has taught writing courses at PCC for more than 30 years. “You need to leave this information for the people who will come after you, so they’ll know the person that you were.”

Each Monday afternoon in a classroom at the Pitt County Council on Aging, students share the stories they have written on everything from high school graduation to the family dog. Participants, mostly senior adults, are retired teachers and librarians, state employees and insurance agents.

Once everyone takes a seat, introductions begin in the usual way, “My name is June, and I am a … writer.”

Not “I want to be a writer.” Not even “I’m trying to be a writer.”

O’Leary, author of the 1997 novel “With Wings As Eagles,” will accept nothing less.


“They always have to say ‘I am a writer’ because that’s a mindset that they need to have,” she said. “Everybody’s a writer, but they don’t think of themselves as a writer.”

Personal accounts can speak volumes, even if those volumes are never published. That is a lesson students learn in O’Leary’s class, which is designed to teach participants how digging into their families stories — rather than simply filling in names on the family tree — can yield something even larger, with roots that go much deeper.

“This is something that doing genealogy can’t give you,” O’Leary said. “It’s fine if Uncle Frank lived in 1800, but Uncle Frank is just a cipher until you put some details on him and tell us some of the things that he did.”

For O’Leary, decoding family history was not a matter of hours spent reading at the courthouse but of time spent listening at her grandparents’ house, where there was no electricity or running water until O’Leary was almost out of high school.

“I remember the days when everybody sat on their porches and the kids were running around getting lightning bugs,” she said. “We would listen. (The adults) would be sitting on the porch, and they’d be spinning these stories.”

Childhood was different for Hawk, who was born and raised in Pennsylvania. But a common thread for her and her Southern classmates is the memory of their parents and grandparents weaving stories. Hawk only wishes she had been a better listener.

“I am the only one left,” she said. “I have no brothers or sisters. I have no cousins. Nobody’s living in my generation or older except me. They say every time somebody dies, a library is lost because people don’t write this stuff down.”

Hawk, who lived through the Depression and World War II, was determined to pass those stories along. So two Christmases ago, the gift she gave her children was a written collection of memories from her early childhood and teen years. A second volume, due this Christmas, will include her college years, marriage and motherhood. Nearly every account began as an assignment in the Family Stories Workshop.

“I can’t tell you how many friends I have that will say, ‘Gee, I should do that,’” Hawk said. “But you don’t do it unless you have something that kind of forces you to do it.”

In the workshop, that force is O’Leary, who considers it her job to not only spark her students’ memories but to light a fire under them to organize those recollections into entertaining stories. Though students do not receive a grade for their work, there is homework to complete each week. Students are not confined to the assigned topic, but most know better than to show up without written work to share with the group.

“I call myself a nag,” O’Leary said, laughing. “A lot of people take my classes quite simply for the deadline because they know I’m going to call them a sorry sucker if they haven’t done their homework.”

In terms of name calling, that’s as far as it goes. O’Leary does not permit harsh critiques. Students bring two unsigned copies of their writing assignment to class. One is to be read aloud by a fellow student selected at random. The other is for O’Leary, who follows along and makes notes in pencil, not red ink.

Though some of her writing students have included authors such as Newbery Medal winner Sheila Turnage, O’Leary does not expect grammatical genius or punctuation perfection. Instead, she lightheartedly advises writing students to “leave your mother in the hall and kill your English teacher.”

Of course, O’Leary, who is both a mother and an English teacher, is only joking. What she means is being too focused on pleasing others or too fearful of punctuation errors can make writing seem like an oppressive chore instead of an outlet for creativity.

Prior to enrolling in the class at Pitt Community, Carolyn Stocks had taken a writing correspondence course that she never finished. As a school teacher, wife and mother of three, she never had time to do the required research paper, but she always loved to write.

“Looking back, I think I’ve always wanted to write,” Stocks said. “I had even written some stories when my children were small, but I never did anything with them.”

The Family Stories Workshop changed that. In the past five years, Stocks has published two volumes — “About ’Possums, Techniculties, Roses and Such” and “Mom’s Philosophy 101” — each telling dozens of stories about life as a Pentecostal Holiness preacher’s kid and later as a farmer’s wife.

“Probably the best marriage advice my mother gave me was ‘Never try to talk to a man about problems until after you have fed him,’” Stocks writes in a chapter titled “Chickens, Apples and other Platitudes.” “I heeded that and it served me well for 40 years.”

In the forward of each book, she credits O’Leary’s class, along with a memoirs workshop taught by Joan Boudreau, for inspiring her to write.

“We support each other,” Stocks said of her classmates. “I think Pat gives us confidence that we can.”

O’Leary also receives a nod on the first page of “For Kindred Love,” a collection of stories by student Jackie Boykin of Williamston, who began taking the writing class about two years ago.

“All these memories kept pressing in on me,” Boykin, a retired teacher, said. “I thought really I ought to write them down or do something about it.”

When Boykin was diagnosed with cancer last year, she was even more determined to write out her memories. She stopped by a printer on the way home from chemotherapy one day and asked about getting some of her stories bound together in a book.

“I thought, ‘If you don’t do it now, you may not have time to do it,’” she said.

She wanted to share the stories of her grandmother, of school dances and childhood dreams and of her favorite teacher, Mrs. Oliver.

“The genius of Mrs. Oliver’s educational methods was her ‘hands-on’ approach,” Boyd wrote. “For declamations, we memorized famous speeches and stood before the class to recite. Just ask me and I’ll give you a stirring rendition of Lincoln’s ‘Gettysburg Address.’ By putting heroic words in our mouths, she gave us confidence in our own worth.”

Boyd has shared her stories with family and friends and even with descendants of Mrs. Oliver.

“I’ve loved writing stories,” Boyd said. “I’ve learned a lot about myself, and about my past and my relationships because I sat down and put pen to paper. … Writing stories can lead you down unexpected paths.”

Writing her family stories has not led Boyd down the career path to become a novelist. But that was never the goal.

“Most of these people are not interested in writing a novel,” O’Leary said. “(The goal is) a renewed confidence in their ability to write and in the value of their stories — because they are valuable.”

For information about the Family Stories Workshop, contact Pitt Community College’s Continuuing Education program at 493-7388 or visit A memoir writing course is offered as part of East Carolina University’s Lifelong Learning Program. Call 328-9198 or visit

via The Daily Reflector.