Residents remember Rochester back in the day



By Annie Stodola

Oakland University writing and rhetoric special lecturer Cornelia Pokrzywa started the Rochester Oral History Archive project in order to help preserve memories of Rochester from residents age 55 and up.

Through the project, interviews are conducted with residents ages 55 and up on memories of Rochester, including information about buildings, festivals, prominent people and campus life when OU was just starting out.

“Our work is creating ties and strengthening ties in the community,” Pokrzywa said.

The project was partially inspired by Ohio University’s Digital Archive of Literary Narratives — a database that collects recordings of people speaking about their memories of learning to read — and NPR’s StoryCorps series.

Pokrzywa and her team began the oral history project earlier this year through grants from the Meadowbrook Writing Project and Building the Civic ‘Net, a philanthropic organization that gives grants to projects that are working to build community through the use of social media.

So far, interviews have been conducted at the Rochester Older Persons Commission, the Rochester Hills Public Library and Pokrzywa’s office.

“We’ve done 35 or so interviews so far, but we’re going into a heavy phase of expansion,” Pokrzywa said. “Over the next year, expect to see a great deal more added.”

At the upcoming Rochester Area Heritage Festival at Rochester College on Sept. 25 and 26, the project will conduct interviews by appointment, as well as on a first come, first serve basis if they have time.

To record an interview, the interviewee must be at least 55 years of age and talk about Rochester, regardless of whether or not they are a current resident.  Pokryzwa also said that there’s no stipulation regarding the length of time the person lived in the area.

“We’re not just looking for people who can say they’ve lived here for 50 years,” she said. “If there’s someone who doesn’t live here but who got married here and wants to talk about that, that’s okay too. We want Rochester memories.”

Pokrzywa is a longtime Rochester resident who graduated from Rochester Adams High School, and received her master’s degree from OU.

She is also enlisting others with ties to the Rochester community to help with the interviews, including other lecturers from OU, a retired teacher and some of her own students.

“Last year students in my Writing 160 course helped as volunteers,” Pokrzywa said. “In winter 2011,  another Writing 160 class will also help, and we’re getting the help of the digital storytelling class. We intend to have more student involvement as the project grows.”

The project is open to any students interested in helping as interviewers as well, especially student organizations that might be interested in helping out. Training is provided for those who want to help interview.

The interviews that have been conducted so far are available on the oral history project’s website, located at as well as at the Rochester Hills Public Library and the Rochester Hills Museum. Currently in the works is a searchable database for the website that will allow residents to find information on specific subjects.

“Once we have the database set up, you’ll be able to search, for example, Meadowbrook Hall and find every recorded memory from the project about Meadowbrook Hall,” Pokyrzwya said.

The project has received support from the community, who have eagerly shared stories ranging from standing next to Matilda Dodge Wilson in a voting booth line to enjoying walks

“The really exciting thing about internet capability is that it allows people to share easily,” Pokrzywa said. “Once they record it, we put it online and they can share the link with their families and friends.”

Students involved in the interviewing process have also benefitted.

“Some students are from the area, but don’t have deep roots in the community,” she said. “A lot of them are three generations or less in a town. It’s a lot of fun for the students to hear the memories and see how people lived.”