*On November 17, 2011, Geoffrey Mock published the following story online for Duke Today, under the “Campus” and “Academics” categories. 

More than 1,800 veterans die every day, so Elaine Lawless and other oral history scholars knows it’s a race to get their stories recorded before they are lost forever.  Now she’s getting Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill students to join that effort.

The Keohane Distinguished Visiting Professor at Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill for fall 2011, Lawless is spearheading an effort to collect oral histories from North Carolina veterans and to archive them with the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project.

“North Carolina has a strong military presence throughout the state,” said Lawless, a University of Missouri professor who is spending the 2011-12 academic year in the Triangle.  “I think hearing veterans’ stories is something that both Duke and UNC students will be excited about.”

Ex-Marine Robert Patrick founded and directs the Veterans History Project.  Patrick, who has been collecting veteran’s stories for almost a decade, will launch the North Carolina effort in a talk at 7 p.m. Friday at the Center for Documentary Studies (CDS).

Through Patrick’s leadership, more than 90,000 oral histories have been collected in the project and are available for scholars and the public at the Library of Congress.
Many are online.  Veterans of World War II — the oldest war for which there are still living American veterans — are the priority.

Lawless heard Patrick describe the project in a 2010 talk and knew immediately she wanted to be part of it.  At the University of Missouri, she did ethnography fieldwork, most recently collecting narratives from domestic violence survivors, sometimes developing them into theater performances.  She taught classes on ethnography methods, folklore, oral history and literature.

“I’m a narrative scholar at heart,” she said, speaking this week in her office at CDS’s Lyndhurst House.  “What Robert was doing seemed important to me. The stories don’t censor anything.  You get everybody’s story.  Robert is committed to that.”

The following semester, her Missouri students started interviewing veterans, focusing on World War II veterans.  Soon community members also got involved.

“Collecting veterans’ stories is not a new idea, but the scope of the project is impressive, and the idea appealed to my students,” Lawless said.

“I’ve been very interested that we have been able to collect many stories of women in the military.  I hope we’re able to do that in North Carolina as well.  My sense is that they will tell a different type of story than we often heard from men.”

She recounted one narrative from a 92-year-old Missouri woman who served as a non-combat military pilot during World War II.  To get the position, she had to lie about having children and a family.

“Three decades after the war, her lie was exposed and she was court-martialed,” Lawless said, a small incredulous smile coming across her face.  “The woman’s
life so impressed the students that one of them turned it into a performance

CDS faculty are helping Lawless launch the project and hope that the veterans’ stories
project continues after she returns to Missouri. Documentary Studies’ Michelle Lanier, who will teach a spring oral history course with Lawless, said that in addition to attracting undergraduates and graduate students to the project, she hopes community members, veterans and veterans’ family members will participate. Students in CDS continuing studies courses could also be involved.

“I think we’ll find many people who have special moments and memories that will add to the collection,” Lanier said.  “There’s going to be a broad audience interested in this.”

This is the type of lasting initiative that the Keohane Visiting Professorship is meant to promote. Lawless has spent the semester moving between the two campuses.  She is teaching one class at UNC and has given lectures on both campuses related to her work collecting narratives of domestic violence.

For the spring semester, she will continue working on both campuses as a Lehman Brady Visiting Joint Chair Professor in Documentary Studies and American Studies at Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill.

“It’s a great experience to encourage cross-university collaborations,” Lawless said.


Elaine Lawless is the ninth Keohane professor and is following in the footsteps of Swiss political scientist Klaus Armingeon and others who left a lasting collaboration between Duke and UNC through their lectures, teaching and scholarship.

The Keohane Professorship recognizes the contributions of Nannerl Keohane during her term as president of Duke and the level of collaboration she and former UNC Chancellor James Moeser created between these two institutions.

The award was created in 2004 by then-Chancellor Moeser and is funded by Carolina graduate Julian Robertson and his wife, Josie, of New York, and the William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust.

The program is accepting nominees for the 2012 professorship. Nominations must be received no later than Feb. 10, 2012. Additional information on the professorship can be found here.

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