It’s not often I get a chance to interview someone. I’m always nervous if I am going to ask the right questions. But when I learned I would have the chance to interview Shirley Baugher, a fellow blogger here at ChicagoNow, I felt a bit relieved. Though we had not met in person, I knew that Shirley and I shared one thing – a love of history.
Shirley is a local historian and free lance writer with several books to her credit, most recently one called “The Hidden History of Old Town”, about the little known stories about the Old Town neighborhood here in Chicago. Shirley has called Old Town her home for the last 36 years.
Whether in her books or her blog, there is one thing that is revealed – her passion for the people and stories that make up the world around us. It is a true honor for me to give you this little insight into a woman that refuses to let the past die but continue to keep alive the stories of those that came before us.
Your Facebook page for ‘Living in Interesting Times‘ states your blog is about the people, places and things as seen through your eyes. What drives you to share your life in this way?
All the people, places, and things that are, and have been, part of my life define me. They make me who I am, and I want to share who and what I am with others. I guess I believe that my claim to immortality lies in this sharing; and that years from now, when people read what I have written, they will have a better understanding of me in the context of my time.
You have a master of arts degree in history and your passion for history comes through in your writing. Where does this passion come from? I can pin point the exact moment that history came alive and real to me. Was there a single moment in your childhood or when you were a young adult when history came alive for you?
When I was a graduate student at Northwestern, I spent a great deal of time studying the Puritans and the early days of our country. I was fascinated by the strength of their beliefs, their work ethic, their drive to succeed and through that success, to build a nation that would endure for all time. I actually felt a personal connection with many of the early Puritan leaders. On a trip to Cambridge, I visited the cemetery in which many of them were buried. I spent an entire day reading their headstones and remembering what I had read about them. I was particularly drawn to John Winthrop, an early leader of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and his struggle—indeed the struggle of all the Puritans—to reconcile the conflict between the demands of authority and the permissiveness of freedom; and to do right in a world that did wrong. It is a struggle we are still experiencing. When I was teaching, my students used to joke that they knew very little about the 20th century because I spent so much time in the 17th and 18th centuries. Periods I considered the “seedtime of the republic.” I reminded them that “…the past remains integral to us all, individually and collectively. We must concede the ancients their place…but their place is not simply back in a separate foreign country; it is assimilated in ourselves, and resurrected in an ever-changing present.”
How have you instilled the importance of remembering and embracing our history in your family? And what would you tell other parents on how to keep their own history alive in the generations to come?
I’m afraid I didn’t do a very good job of instilling a sense of history’s importance in my son. I had better luck with my grandson. We read books detailing historical events together. We visited historical sites. I shared old photos of my own family who immigrated to this country in the early 20th century. His grandfather designed encyclopedias for World Book and gave him a set. He actually read from the books every night. I wrote a number of books about the history of Old Town and dedicated one of them to my grandson.
As for advising other parents to share the importance of history, I would remind them that by keeping their own histories alive for generations to come, they are building a bridge across the mystery of the past through the present and into the future. By showing their children where we have been, they will help them understand where we are and where we must go.
Is there anything from your past that you look at now and scratch your head and say “what the heck was I thinking when I did that?”
There is something about which I will always wonder. A road not taken as it were. Many years ago, I was teaching and directing a federally funded program at Northwestern. A national group of educators and law professors were working with teachers to train students how to think logically and to instill in them an understanding of law in American society. We were making real strides. For some reason I decided to give it all up and go to Paris to study cooking. While I had a wonderful experience and living in Paris was exciting, I often wonder how my life would have turned out had I continued my work at Northwestern. Would I have made a significant impact on education? Would I have had a more fulfilling life? I’ll never know. Oh well, as the saying goes, I’ll always have Paris.
So you just hopped a plane and went to Paris? That’s a bold move. Had you ever been to Paris before?
Indeed it was. I had not been to Paris before, but I had always wanted to go. I had an itch, and somehow I knew if I didn’t scratch it then, I never would. Also, I had never done anything on my own before. It was time to start.
And why cooking? It seems a bit of a departure from what you had been doing.
Why cooking? That’s harder. Here I was, at the top of my career, developing a national reputation doing something I did as well, or better than anyone else, and U decided to leave it all and go cook. Go figure. It’s a little like trying to explain when did you fall in love—what night, what day? I just did. I talked my way into the Cordon Bleu—I was good at talking—resigned my job at NU, and off I went. It. was a glorious adventure. But I’m not sure I’d make the same decision today. Hindsight.
Is there anything you still haven’t had the opportunity do?
There’s always more to do. I want to write more books. I want to do that one great thing that will put a period on my life, that will give me a sense of having left no stone unturned. That, I believe, is still to come.
Do you have a new book in the works? If so can you give us a preview?
I do. I’m planning to write a book about the life and death of my home town—and by extension the “Cairo, Illinois: The Short Happy Life and Lingering Death of a Small Town”. I’m starting it as a blog, but will expand it to a full length book.
From your historical perspective, What are your thoughts on the current culture in regards transgender visisbiliy and true equal rights across the board?
I am deeply committed to equal rights and to the LGBT movement. My own home was the seat of the equal rights movement in the United States and is about to be designated a national landmark for this reason. I have done a lot of writing about the founder and the house’s role in the movement. We will be going to Washington in the fall for the designation.
If you like to read more from Shirley Baugher, I encourage you to read and subscribe to her blog “Living in Interesting Times”.
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