Family Memories Preserved on Videotape

Times Staff Writer

Death . . . is a feeling of loss. We lost Matthew, my little brother--my first experience with death. He was on his way home from school in the first grade. He was hit by a truck and killed on the streets of Brooklyn. I’ll never forget the sight of my mother and father consoling that poor Italian truck driver who had run over their son. I won’t forget that, for as long as I live. -- From Tom Meagher’s video biography

Tom Meagher has already lived a long life.

He’s 70 now, with a fabulous sense of recall and more stories than George Burns on a roll. Meagher (pronounced MARE) decided to tell his story for posterity.

Enter Phil Clarke, a friend of Meagher’s in the Rancho Bernardo Toastmaster’s Club. Word got around that Clarke had a new business putting biographies on videotape.

“So many think of writing their memoirs and never do,” said Clarke, a 38-year-old former real estate agent from Denver who has lived in San Diego less than a year. “This is a much easier way, something generations can treasure long into the 21st Century.”


Clarke has a vision that a little girl, sitting before a vast entertainment center, might learn of her great-great-grandfather’s life without having a time machine like the one in the movie “Back to the Future.”

Videocassettes, bearing the stuff of ancestry, are Clarke’s idea of a time machine.

Clarke looks nothing like the mad scientist time traveler of “Back to the Future.” He wears crisp tailored suits, gold tie clasps and a look of innocence and intrigue whenever a client unfolds the pages of life.

He has heard some incredible things from the mouths of his mostly elderly clientele, so much so that he’s emerged as a kind of activist--for the elderly.

“We’re closing ourselves to an element of society, an element of life,” he said. “I’m sharing this with them, and the people closest to them aren’t. The irony is, the people who may be watching this in the future are the ones missing the chance to hear it now, firsthand.”

That’s one irony. Another is Clarke’s forte depending on video technology, while television--the granddaddy of such science--is, in his view, one of the great separators of modern time. Most of all, television intrudes, he says. It forces itself into otherwise memorable conversation. It monopolizes and controls, leaving little in its wake but passive, lazy watchers.

He’s not alone in thinking we have become a nation of watchers.

That may be not entirely bad. Clarke feels that video technology can be used for good, as in his experiment. It’s one that others are getting into, albeit on different levels.


Dozens of video outlets listed in the local Yellow Pages offer to tape weddings, bar mitzvahs, etc. Only two have gone the route of video biographies. They are Clarke (Video Greetings of America) and Tom Gorman of Escondido, a Times staffer with a part-time interest in learning “what was it like, traveling across the country or going on dates in cars with rumble seats and running boards.”

Clarke charges $185 for a two-hour tape, with interviews stretching over four hours, maybe five. (Gorman charges $100 for two hours, $50 for each additional hour.)

Clarke interviews the subject in his or her home. Sometimes he goes “on location,” doing interviews at a favorite restaurant, a cemetery or in the living rooms of friends. He asks ahead of time for photographs and memorabilia, set up in chronological order. Questions cover such areas as, “What is your earliest memory of your paternal grandfather? What was your first experience with death? How did your parents meet? How did you and your wife meet?”

He is most astounded by how rarely such questions have been asked by the “loved ones” these people are closest to. Many clients ask that their children not see the tape--that it be viewed only by grandchildren. Many demand that the tape be locked away in a safe-deposit box until after their death.

In the course of asking such seemingly simple queries, Clarke has heard some amazing tales.

“People talk most frankly, all the way from sex habits to bitter grudges to the warmest moments in life,” he said.


Common threads soon emerge. Surprisingly, death isn’t the leader. The most common is the universality of human experience, regardless of the person’s age, genealogy or birthplace. (The average age of Clarke’s clients is 65. His youngest is 36.)

Sex enters almost every conversation, in the form of foolish memories, or wedding nights when neither party had much of an idea about what happened next.

One man sadly remembered a Japanese concentration camp in World War II, the lives of young friends snuffed out early. Many went through the Great Depression and emerged with the most noble and character-building stiff upper lips imaginable. Many lost young children to death, which Clarke now sees as the deepest, most devastating loss, the kind many never really recover from.

Humor also has come forth, stampeding into the tapes like welcome soldiers. One woman told of the death of the family tortoise. A “burial at sea” was recommended to the two boys mourning the turtle’s demise. Burial at sea consisted of flushing the turtle down the toilet.

But at about the moment the lifeless body hit the water, and the first prayer started in earnest, the Lazarus-like creature sprang to life-- with the toilet flushing! A manic mother, trying to console two screaming sons, stuck a long arm into the netherworld of the family sewer and managed to rescue an otherwise shell-shocked beast from utter oblivion.

Clarke believes that not only the stories but also the details of life in ’85 are important to the telling of a tape. He asks clients to wear several changes of clothes during the course of the two-hour running time, to drink from several cups, to show household paintings and furniture as a way of preserving what it was like.


He marvels at how the most elderly clients, many on the verge of death, feel years younger in spirit, if only their blasted bodies hadn’t betrayed them. He marvels that love affairs, gone awry so many years ago, still linger in the memory like the smell of honeysuckle. Men more than women, he said, are imbued with the romance of nostalgia.

Clarke emerges from a day’s work sometimes saddened, always moved, often angered by the injustice he sees being inflicted on society’s treasures--the aged.

“I see a closeness to that of the black experience,” he said. “These people get tired of being snubbed by checkers in supermarkets. They get tired of condescension and arrogance. Tired of being seen as a washed-out stereotype.

“I only wish society would view the stereotype of the elderly as that of Ron and Nancy Reagan, Pope John XXIII, Ezra Taft Benson, the guy now heading the Mormon Church. Those people never let age stop them, and most of my people haven’t either.

“We have so much to learn. They have so much to contribute. It frightens me how closed we’ve all gotten to some of our more valuable national resources, lurking right in our midst. If only we’d look and listen, we’d be surprised at what we could learn from our very own people.”

Growing up in Colorado, the gentle-seeming Clarke grew close to his own grandparents. He sees the loss of the extended family, and the fallen art of conversation, as two of the surest signs of modern decadence.


As a real-estate broker, he learned to videotape listings as a way of shortcutting clients’ requests. After tiring of that profession, he thought of a way of merging two interests--video and film, with a passion for storytelling.

Before moving here, he had heard of the shallowness of California. He thinks it’s a myth--and maybe a sham. He shatters it day by day, he says, listening to the voices of Tom Meagher and dozens like him with a life to share:

“Advice for grieving?” Meagher asked. “That’s a hard one. But, heavens, don’t be afraid to cry. I remember when Matthew died, my grandfather--a giant of a man at 6-foot-3--cried like a baby. Matthew had the biggest funeral. You’d have thought he was a gangster or somethin’. The whole neighborhood came out. What did we learn? That being busy, looking forward rather than back, is the only way. It’s the answer for the pain of grief, for the living of life. I’ve loved my life. I only hope you’ve loved yours.”