I found living history on the pages of the New York Times recently. The story of Joe Binder, a parking lot attendant on historic Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, caught my attention, and I couldn’t help but want to blog about it. Binder turned 100 last Thursday, and the neighborhood spent the weekend toasting its very own legend.
Perhaps I’m partial to Binder’s story because I have my own New York native, 97-year-old Jewish grandfather, whom I can’t wait to celebrate with when he turns 100. And maybe because I’ve spent so much time with my grandfather, I’ve realized the value of listening to what he has to say. You can learn a lot about history from someone who has lived it—the colorful details you won’t find in textbooks. From gambling on World War II army ships headed back from the Pacific to doling out liquor licenses to New York eateries, my grandfather has lived an American life, the kind you want to read about in history class.
I bet Joe Binder has some great stories. Maybe from his days in the navy, maybe from his time on Arthur Avenue, which has been home to Italian immigrants and their families for generations. Maybe he shares them when he sits back with a blackberry brandy at Pasquale’s Rigoletto after work. I hope he does, and I hope people are listening, because their lives will be richer for it.
From time to time at The History Factory, we have the opportunity to conduct an oral history with an elderly person: a five-star general, a free-spirited, 90-year-old philanthropist. These interviewees offer more than just business history; they provide historical perspective. They have thoughts and opinions that stretch through many years and many different experiences, which are invaluable to the corporate memory.
It’s essential to remember those elder, integral members of your organization when thinking about preserving company heritage, through oral history or some other means. Even if they retired years ago, reach out to them and ask them to share—their memories are filled with the history you want to know. You likely won’t it find elsewhere, and the life of your organization will be richer for it.