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Sharing life stories

Susan Milstein, left, and Andi Reese Brady of Personal History Productions in Santa Rosa. The two help people write and publish or record their personal stories — legacy books and videos — that can be passed on to younger generations of their families.

BETH SCHLANKER / PD
Published: Sunday, February 3, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, February 4, 2013 at 12:03 p.m.

It was in Paris near La Madeleine, a church on the Right Bank, where Bob Anderson told a shard of his story, a fragment that would later be pieced together in a book.

“He told me it was here, back in 1945, when he saw an American soldier flirt with a beautiful French woman and pat her behind which he found offensive,” said Kim Clement, Anderson's daughter. “I just wanted to capture all of his memories.”

Roughly a decade after that father-daughter trip to France in 2000 Clement compiled her notes, a knot of questions and answers and then more questions, and then she approached local professionals to record her father's story.

“Everyone said I could do a book like this myself but I didn't have the energy or the expertise,” Clement said.

There's a burgeoning effort among estate planners, educators and financial advisers to encourage older people to get their stories recorded, according to a recent Wall Street Journal story.

Jed Cooper, a Santa Rosa-based estate and financial planner, said he's aware of this trend in financial circles, and he definitely encourages every client of his who is 60-plus years in age to seriously think about getting their story recorded for future generations.

“People give a lot of thought and time to their estate planning, but they don't give much thought to planning how they want to leave the legacy of who they are as a person, as a human being, that's what they don't leave,” Cooper said.

“I'd say almost 100 percent of the time it's a new concept or thought for them to leave this kind of legacy.”

Clement, of Santa Rosa, hired Susan Milstein and Andi Reese Brady of Santa Rosa-based Personal History Productions to chronicle Anderson's life, and they said it was a colorful undertaking.

Anderson, 88, lived through the Great Depression, fought in the Battle of the Bulge during World War II and has thrived through the Computer Age. Anderson, who was born in 1924, grew up with the telephone a rarity, but today he's comfortable googling on his iPad.

“People think memoirs are just for celebrities and for the famous, but everyone has a story worth recording, at least for the family and close friends,” Milstein said.

A former journalist, Milstein covered the the state Supreme Court for the San Francisco Chronicle and her business partner, Brady, was a senior editor with Random House. In 2005 they pooled their expertise to offer audio recordings, as well as books. Their price ranges from $200 for a smaller project like a “legacy letter” to $25,000 and up.

“The stories that come out are not the kind that come out in the give and take of a regular family dinner,” Milstein said. “Most gratifying for me is capturing stories that certainly would have been lost in a generation or two if they hadn't been recorded.”

To date, Personal History Productions has published three dozen books and two dozen audio recordings. Brady's personal favorite was the book on the late Kathy Van Riper.

“When we met her, Kathy had been living with cancer for many years, “ Brady said. “She wanted to leave a book for her children so they'd know her better as a person. From Kathy, I learned more about positive perseverance ... ”

Others in the area who record life histories with a focus on video include Kathleen Quinn of Life Reflections Video in Sebastopol and Marc Johnson of Access Generations in Rohnert Park.

Quinn was inspired to do this work after recording the life of her 75-year old father, who developed Alzheimer's disease at 86 before he died at 88.

“I'm so grateful the tape was there and archived,” Quinn said. “When I first did the videotape, he never spoke of about World War II and my brother was blown away when I got him to talk about the war because it's something he never shared before.”

Quinn does legacy videos, among other offerings, for one to three hours for $1,100. Since she began this work in 1995, she's done roughly 40 to 50. (www.lifereflectionsvideo.com)

Johnson began recording life stories in 2001 and has had about 350 clients. He produces books and videos, charging $200 to $5,000 and up. His focus has been on videos for the past five years because “younger generations seem to connect better with video than books ... When you get this generation excited about the project, then they often want to do both a video and a book.” (www.accessgenerations.com)

What Johnson said he finds most surprising are the stories themselves.

“Once you get the conversation going, you inevitably get wonderful and poignant stories, and once shared with family they are received with love and appreciation and more questions,” Johnson said. “Because that's what happens every single time.”

Staff writer Peg Melnik can be reached at 521-5310 or pegmelnik@gmail.com

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