Named Official Historians : Walnut 8th-Graders Interview City's Past

Times Staff Writer

Leonard Westhoff rarely gets a chance to reminisce about Walnut's incorporation.

The 88-year-old Westhoff, one of Walnut's original City Council members, likes to talk about the days when 930 people borrowed $10,000 to get the city started, or when the first council met in a tiny garage and residents who couldn't squeeze in were forced to discuss business through an open window.

But now, Westhoff's memories have been preserved in videotape interviews with the city's historians--an eighth-grade class at Suzanne Middle School.

The 40 students in Alan Haskvitz's social studies class were appointed official Walnut historians by the City Council in January. Since then, the students have set aside one class period a week to gather facts about their community of 25,000.

In addition to videotaping interviews, the 13- and 14-year-olds are identifying items chronicling the city's 28-year history. Each student also has to complete a research report on a building, physical landmark or group in Walnut.

The material will be cross-referenced and stored at the Walnut branch of the Los Angeles County Library. The Highlander, a weekly community newspaper, has agreed to print the students' reports, which will be published after the school's attorney reviews the material.

The students said their research, especially the personal interviews, has given them a new outlook on Walnut.

"You learn a lot more when you actually experience talking to somebody," said Maribelle Estrella, 14. "It's really neat what they know and what they can remember.

'Like an Adventure'

"It's not just a project, it's more like an adventure," added her classmate Joyce Hsu, 13.

Haskvitz requires each student in his five social studies classes to complete a community involvement activity. He approached the City Council to request that one of his classes be named official historians because he was looking for a way to get his students interested in history. Next year, another of his classes will continue the project.

Because Walnut has never had an official historian, photographs and documents were scattered in city offices, sometimes stored in overstuffed scrapbooks.

Ray McMullen, assistant superintendent for personnel/staff development for the Walnut Valley Unified School District, said the project "makes history a living thing for them instead of something they just read about in a book."

Never Doubted Ability

Councilwoman Bert Ashley said the council never doubted the class' ability to do the job.

"I thought it was a marvelous idea," she said. "They might be young, but sometimes the young have a better idea of the good, as well as the bad, in history."

Ashley, who has lived in Walnut for 24 years, was also interviewed for the project. She told the students about a town that had no traffic signals and days when residents gathered at Walnut Elementary School for 85-cent-a-plate spaghetti feeds and children collected tadpoles in a pond now covered with concrete.

McMullen, a former teacher and principal at Suzanne Middle School, said he told the students in his videotape about the origins of the city's educational system.

Other stories may not have such significance but add humor to Walnut's history, such as Maribelle's and Joyce's favorite, about Westhoff's dog and a bakery truck.

For weeks, the truck's driver would toss the cocker spaniel a doughnut in front of Westhoff's house. The dog would run to the home of Westhoff's sister, where it would get another doughnut. When the driver finally discovered that he was feeding the same dog twice, he didn't stop the practice, but just cut one doughnut in half.

Some students, such as Colleen Crandall, found their individual projects frustrating and time-consuming.

Colleen, 14, has spent the last two months trying to determine when and where an old photograph showing a neighborhood was taken. After driving around the city with her mother, Colleen has narrowed the location to four spots.

Glad for Assignment

Colleen said she is confident that she can identify the area in time to interview residents who might still live there. And she said she is glad she had such an interesting assignment.

"I like a challenge," she said. "I especially like this class because it's harder and Mr. Haskvitz gives us harder things to do."

Another student, Julie Lee, 13, said she enjoyed her research on Walnut Elementary School, although it took her more than a month to find all the information she needed.

"It's hard work, but when you're finished you can be proud of yourself," said Julie.

Haskvitz is always looking for ways to have his students work with the community, a task he said is particularly difficult for such a young group.

One of his classes last year rewrote the Los Angeles County voting instructions, which were incorporated into the county's election material. A review of the school fire safety rules by another class was published in the American Fire Journal.

This year, other students are fingerprinting children entering the school district, selling plants to raise money for seeing-eye dogs and organizing field trips to area businesses.

But the class that has had the best interaction with the community is the one whose students were designated as city historians, Haskvitz said.

Maurice Cofer, a Walnut resident for 25 years, said it was "an honored experience just to be asked by the children to be interviewed."

"Some of those kids just asked the most beautifully worded questions," he said. "You wouldn't have thought they were eighth-graders."

Cofer's favorite question had to do with how many honest politicians he knew.

Cofer said he didn't remember his exact reply, but "I probably told them not too terribly many."

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