Tom Ratliff was searching the internet to learn more about his deceased grandfather when he discovered an oral history of his military service — all thanks to the Mary L. Cook Public Library’s participation in a national project more than a decade ago.
“I was trying to find his military records online. I stumbled across the Veterans History Project (VHP) maybe a year ago and saw there was a cassette tape of the interview at the Library of Congress. They required an advanced notice, and I would have had to travel to Washington, D.C.,” Ratliff said. “Recently, I looked up the project again and saw he was interviewed by members of the Mary L. Cook Public Library. I went to their site and right there on the page was a YouTube video of the interview.”
For 45 minutes, Richard L. Levering details his military experiences as part of the Library of Congress’ VHP, which seeks to collect and preserve oral histories of veterans to share with future generations.
“None of my family — mom, brother, aunts, uncles or cousins — knew he participated. I think my grandma knew but had never seen the video. There were a few moments in the interview that we all teared up when we watched it individually,” said Ratliff, who lives near Greenfield, Ind., where Levering settled after retiring from the military. “He spoke about how he would do it all over again, because he loved America and loved the Service. He also spoke about how it’s all of our duty to safeguard liberty and keep America free. That was a really good description of who he was, a good snapshot of his character and what made him tick.”
Born May 15, 1926, in Wilmington, Ohio, Levering served in the U.S. Army during World War II and in the Air Force during the Korean and Vietnam eras. He taught high school English and American literature until retiring from his second career in 2003. He died Jan. 22, 2004 from a brain tumor.
“I spent a lot of time with him when I was growing up. My wife and kids never got to meet him, so having that 45 minutes of him telling his story is huge,” Ratliff said. “He just loved America. He was intelligent, articulate and just that classic ‘Greatest Generation’ kind of guy. He was a great Granddad, a great role model for me. He definitely instilled those old-time values in me that seem to be missing in parts of our society today.”
Beginning in 2001, librarian Kathy Colvin spearheaded the local effort to collect more than 200 veteran histories.
“The VHP especially wanted to record stories of service people from WWII, estimated to die at a rate of 400 per day. If we did not capture these first-hand accounts while we had the opportunity, their stories would be gone forever, lost to future generations. There is nothing quite like hearing a story from the person who lived it,” she said.
A Mary L. Cook team went to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force to conduct interviews of veterans, including Levering’s.
“For me personally, each story gave me a deeper understanding of the word, ‘service.’ From listening to the participants recite their daily routines to their in-the-moment perceptions of the realities of war, it painted a picture for me of what is asked of men and women in these situations. Both the contrasts and similarities of their stories are remarkable,” said Colvin, the mother of an Army major.
Little did she know the impact those interviews would have 15 years later.
“It brought tears to our eyes when Mr. Levering’s grandson contacted us after accidentally finding his grandfather’s interview online and hearing him express how much it meant to him,” Colvin said. “The Mary L. Cook Public Library is proud and humbled to have taken part in this endeavor.”
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