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Edna Lanman served in the Women's Army Corps. Joanne Rose used an abacus before the days of pocket calculators. Ed and June Hemmingson once belonged to the Communist Party. 

Nine residents of the Mennonite Village came Tuesday to South Albany High School to share their life experiences with students in Tony Vandermeer's U.S. History class and talk about how things have changed.

The meeting was part of a continuing partnership begun a year ago between the school and the retirement community.

Vandermeer said he's been especially excited about exposing his students to the "living history" that older residents represent, and the broader perspectives they can share.

And at the Mennonite Village, said Quail Run Activities Coordinator Rhonda Nowell, residents are delighted to discover teens are people, too — and that they're interested in hearing their stories.

"We need each other," Nowell said. "It helps us to be connected. I think it's just good for people to get to know what each generation has to contend with, to build understanding and provide support." 

Students submitted a variety of questions in advance for their visitors to answer, ranging from how everyday life has changed to what the residents remembered about the Civil Rights era to whether the Cold War days bear any similarity to the present.

Janice Gerdemann said she often notes the change in family size from past years to today. When the nation was more agricultural, she said, families had multiple jobs to do and it wasn't unusual to have 10 or more children to do them. She said she knows of one fellow resident who came from a family of 16.

"But I don't think the planet Earth can sustain 16 people in one family or much more than two," she said. "I had three sons. I think that's enough in the city."

Some of the residents acknowledged remaining blissfully ignorant of racial tension during the struggles of the Civil Rights era.

Margi Creech, who grew up in Southern Oregon, said she had an uncle who was an Oregon lawmaker from Eugene. He told a story of hearing a man say Oregon had no problems with discrimination — because it had no one to discriminate against.

"There were no black people, so we had no problem," she explained.

Berdella Stutzman, who grew up in Lebanon, said she also never thought about racial differences much because the town was fairly homogeneous. 

"You know the variety of races that are there — they're not," she said wryly. "I was pretty oblivious, and I'm really sorry that I was."

Edna Lanman had a slightly different experience growing up in south Texas, where most of the people she knew were of Latino descent. One day, she got on a bus that happened to be filled with African-Americans. All the white people, she learned, were on a different bus, but she was tired and wanted to sit down, so she did.

"I thought, I've never been this close to a black person in all my life," she recalled. "It was an education." 

Residents said they recalled a little of the Korean War days. June Hemmingson said she sees some current similarities now to the national feeling then.

After World War II, "We could have stayed friends with the Russians. We didn't," she said. "I went on a peace walk in 1985 to Russia and met the Soviet people. They wanted peace as much as the people here did. But the powers that be were going in a different direction. And I see that happening now." 

Joan Warren, who lived in southern California as a child, said she simply remembers her fear and horror at the thought of war.

"I was really terrified, because I had seen all the pictures of the destruction of World War II. I spent more of my childhood than I should have looking at Life magazine," she recalled.

One day, there was an earthquake. "I thought, oh no. I thought we were being bombed," Warren said. "I lived a good part of my life being afraid of what I couldn't control." 

Students said they loved the chance to get to know the residents, both during the open panel discussion and during small group talks afterward. 

"It's always good for the younger generation and the older generation to come together and talk about the past," said Sam Campbell, 16, a junior. 

Classmate Juan Avila, 17, said the discussion was a chance for younger students to see where they might be someday and how cultures shift over time.

"One day you're going to grow old and tell your story," he said. "You need to do something important with your life and to see how times have changed."

Vandermeer, the teacher, said the discussion helped broaden his perspective, too. He said he hadn't expected to learn, for instance, that a couple from the mid-valley had once been card-carrying Communists (the Hemmingsons have said they left the organization in the late 1980s because of issues at the national level).

Avila said he would love to repeat the experience. "I wish we could have given them more time to explain themselves," he said. "They had a lot to say and were really excited." 

Stuzman said she felt the same way about the teens.

"Hearing their questions — really deep questions ... they became people. They're not just 'teenagers,'" she said. "To me, that was the highlight."


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