If there’s one thing every person has, it’s a life story. Fortunately, Susan Terrill-Flint is dedicated to helping people preserve their life stories and their family histories against time and age.
And fortunately for many Durangoans and FLC alumni from the 1980s and ‘90s, Terrill-Flint this fall completed a life history with Hwaja Chung, a long-time Durango restaurateur and chef whose Main Avenue restaurant, Grandma Chung’s, was beloved by many. And who had an amazing story to tell.
“My family were storytellers,” says Terrill-Flint (English, ’69). “You wanted to relate your day, so you would create a story about what had happened if it was of any interest at all. That was the entertainment around the dinner table.”
Today she is the personal historian behind Legacy La Plata Memoirs, a service that turns people’s life stories into literary legacies that can be passed on to future generations. Terrill-Flint conducts interviews and gathers information, anecdotes, vignettes, reflections, and recollections, and turns those into historical narratives that can be shared.
“Personal history is, as a profession, somewhat new, but the whole concept of writing one’s memoir is probably as old as time,” she says. “Story is instructive. I want people to get something out of it other than the storyline.”
Many of Terrill-Flint's clients are senior citizens, or baby boomers in search of a meaningful gift for their aging parents. Depending upon each client’s individual needs and wishes, she can also call on and incorporate her network of video historians, audio historians, and genealogists into a project, as well.
“We’re finding that people are very aware that they’re losing their families’ stories, what it is that makes us us.” she says. “I am someone from outside the family who can evoke the fact that their parents were very accomplished.”
Terrill-Flint entered the world of personal histories as a second career, after a full career in human resources. It was then she found herself returning to a calling for story telling that started at those family dinners and carried her through her Fort Lewis College years as an English major.
Often these family histories are short publications, printed and shared among family members. So for a story teller like Terrill-Flint, getting to work on a project with a prominent local business figure -- and one with a powerful story to tell -- like Grandma Chung was a great opportunity. Chung also wanted to turn her tale into a retail book.
Grandma Chung was smuggled from North Korea into what is now South Korea at about the age of fifteen, and she never regained contact with parts of her family. Chung passed away in March. “Her hope was that by providing this information, someone will find her side of the family,” says Terrill-Flint. “She had a real specific reason for wanting to do this project.”
Even with this practical motive, Chung provided no shortage of stories for her memoir. “She was well aware that her life was highly unusual,” says Terrill-Flint. “She went from a woman who was so high-born that she was almost royalty in Korean society, to being totally destitute.”
Education was denied to girls like Chung in Korea at the time, Terrill-Flint notes, “so she didn’t really learn to read and write. In the United States, she was highly motivated to better herself and to get an education. I would guess she spent three to five years laboriously writing down the stories that she wanted.”
Of course, every person’s path to preserving a personal history is different. Many people won’t spend three to five years just laying the groundwork to share their story. Still, Terrill-Flint says, just do it.
“Even if all you do is sit down and you describe the house you lived in when you were in first grade, I’d say just get started,” Terrill-Flint encourages. “Your memories, and the stories you have that can be passed on, are incredibly precious.”