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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

A bridge to the past

Personal historian helps tell stories

Katie Vaughan, owner of Sojourn Lifewriting talked with Rex Dye about the book she helped him create about his father Perl Dye Wednesday. (Kathy Plonka)
Jacob Livingston

Until recently, the life of Perl Dye lived on only in the minds of his surviving friends and family, some 50 years after the north central Idaho native’s death. A painted-on, washed-out sign on the side of an aircraft automotive shop, an old family journal and some faded photographs hinted at his lifelong aspirations and achievements, yet Perl Dye’s life history remained an unwritten biography in the spoken stories passed down by later generations.

Now, though, his legacy has been renewed. Thanks to the recollections of 86-year-old Spokane Valley resident Rex Dye, one of Perl’s sons, and to the storytelling talent of new business owner Katie Vaughan, the father of six lives on in memoir form.

Titled “Dreams Became Realities: Memoir of My Father Perl H. Dye,” the privately printed book represents the culmination of a son’s dedication, hundreds of hours spent gathering information, and the finished product of Vaughan’s entrepreneurial endeavor, the recently started Post Falls-based business Sojourn Lifewriting. As a personal historian, Vaughan is a professional storyteller, taking the oral tradition into the modern age of digital and printed cataloging.

“A personal history is more than genealogy, more than the names, dates and places on a family tree,” Vaughan said, while sitting at the library table across from Rex in the Orchard Crest Retirement Community in Spokane Valley, where he lives. “A personal history tells the stories behind those facts, creating a legacy for families and future generations. When people die, they take their memories with them; this helps preserve those stories.”

There are many ways to go about that, she added.

Vaughan, a Nevada native and former newspaper reporter who moved to North Idaho with her husband and three sons in 2004, offers life writing in a variety of forms. What began in 2002, when she started to make the transition from feature writing for a weekly publication to writing the personal histories of others – with her grandfather’s story her first project – has since taken on a life of its own.

Through the years, she’s fine-tuned the offerings to include transcribing notes, making digital audio and video logs, and creating high-quality heirloom books that look as though they belong on the shelf at any local library. Vaughan received her business license last year and is a member of the Association of Personal Historians, a nonprofit network of professionals dedicated to preserving life stories.

Each project is a distinctive experience. Sometimes, a person wants to capture and record a specific time frame in their lives. For others, it’s a whole-life narrative. A project can take anywhere from a handful of digitally recorded interview hours up to several hundred, complete with fact checking and photo gathering. After a consultation visit to see what the client wants, Vaughan offers an estimate, which ranges from a few weeks to more than a year for some of the longer, life-encompassing works. She typically charges $25 to $30 an hour, but is willing to work with individuals “rather than have their stories not be told,” she said.

“It just depends on what the person wants,” Vaughan explained. About her job, she added the most important thing she offers is a finished project. “The biggest thing is making sure it is finished. By taking this daunting task and organizing it into a cohesive story, it makes the process much more doable and enjoyable for the client.”

The end result can be anything from a privately printed book, such as Rex’s narrative about his father, to an edited or unedited audio or video file on CD, to transcribed interviews that recall the stories word-for-word from the speaker.

Rex’s story began to take shape in the ’90s.

“I had worked on this for a long time,” Rex offered, adding that over a 10-year period he had scrawled out more than 20 pages of notes. After noticing an ad on the retirement home’s billboard, he thought he’d see if Sojourn Lifewriting could piece together a story he’d been working on for years.

Soon, the two embarked on a four-month journey into his past, with more than 50 hours of interviews to flesh out the narrative. His story is unique, using Rex’s own words, voice and inflections to portray his dad’s life history through the years. Vaughan considers herself the ghost writer, helping the elder Dye craft a book that features an authentic map of north central Idaho as it appeared in 1921 – several years after Perl arrived in the area – many photos of the man and his family through the years, while relishing in the countless machine innovations and fixes he introduced to the Camas Prairie in an era when horse-drawn power was shifting to engine operations. He was the first person to own an airplane in the area and had to park it on the golf course until an airstrip was built.

The book traces the lineage of the Dye family, from Lewiston to Cottonwood, where Rex was born, to the nearby town of Grangeville, where today’s Anderson Aeromotive shop still displays the Dye family business logo from long ago.

“He was a real self-taught kind of guy. He was a machinist and aviation pioneer,” Rex recalled about his father. “He brought modern machinery to the Camas Prairie; he just knew all about the farm machinery from that period. … The people of Cottonwood he had good relationships with.”

However, the Perl Dye story, just like every project Vaughan works on, involves more than a personal account through the eyes of his son, she said. The life histories are a “journey into your journey,” as the Sojourn business tagline suggests. “I think it’s a wonderful way to honor our loved ones and to make sure they live on with us, for their friends, family and future generations,” she offered.

There are several advantages to hiring a personal historian, Vaughan said. For example, she offers a “new ear” for a well-worn family story, and she often picks up on some tidbits that might have otherwise been overlooked. And as an outside source, Vaughan frees up the narrators to be more forthcoming in telling their stories, without leaving out important pieces such as to a family member that might have sensitivities on the subject. She can also ask deeper questions.

But ultimately it’s all up to the client.

“It’s their story,” she insisted. “There’s no pressure to say or talk about something they don’t want to talk about.”

That means different things to each individual. For Rex, Vaughan and her business offered a therapeutic outlet for some old, lingering issues. For years, Rex had mixed feelings about his father, shifting from pride in his youth, to what he thought was hate during his teen years, to puzzlement later in life, and finally to understanding and developing newfound respect for a crucial figure in his life.

“Writing this book and working with Katie, it has all kind of come together,” he offered. “It’s like the completion of my quest. I worked through those issues and I don’t have any hang-ups anymore. I feel proud to have passed something on to posterity about my father and what an unusual and good guy he was.”

That’s all part of the magic of storytelling, Vaughan added. While there are intentional or unintended consequences in revisiting personal histories, she said each account adds a little something to the life of the listener.

“I know by having Rex, and getting to know his father, my life has been enriched,” she said. “I just know this is absolutely what I’m meant to be doing. I love hearing stories and I love telling them.”