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Preserving the Past Not Just for the Old

We owe a debt to the county’s numerous historical societies and those who help preserve our historic treasures. But they aren’t above criticism, and here’s mine: They’re getting too old.

Not that their members don’t realize it. Some of them talk about it all the time--how to attract younger people to the task of keeping our past alive. It’s not easy.

I’ve been to numerous meetings of historical groups over the years, and most of the time I’ve been the youngest person there. And I’m 51.

At some I’ve gotten interesting glances. Are you someone’s son? a woman asked me at one. As if I wouldn’t have been there if I hadn’t come with a pioneer parent.

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Nancy Goldstein, president of the Garden Grove Historical Society, knows the feeling. She is 53, and the youngest in her group.

“It makes you wonder who will be here to carry on after we’re gone,” she said. “We’ve discussed it a great deal, but I don’t think any of us have found a good answer.”

In Huntington Beach, the historical society publicly promotes some of its most interesting speakers or events, such as a Civil War reenactment or an expert on the Titanic.

“We’ll get quite a few young ones then,” said Joe Cannon, its incoming president. “But by the next meeting, they’re gone.”

The median age in his group is well over 65. Does it take a lifetime of experiences to develop an interest in local history?

Maybe the difference, says Robert Moore, who will be 75 next week, is that his generation experienced a world war.

“When you go through that, it makes you more aware of your forefathers,” he said. “You appreciate your past a little more.”

Moore is on the board of the Dana Point/Capistrano Beach Historical Society. It has some members in their mid-40s, but few younger.

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Gordon Shanks, a co-founder of the Seal Beach Historical Society, believes many under 40 are interested, but simply too busy.

“You take a young couple with children, both working, school activities--their week gets so filled they can’t take on anything new,” he said.

There are local historical groups with young members. But in some, these people are coming with a parent who’s a member. Mary Ann Harmon, a board member of the Seal Beach group, knows from interacting with other groups that the number of young is anemic. And that’s too bad, she says, because “they’re missing out.”

Harmon is 30. She’s been a historical society member since she was 26.

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“It’s great; some of the people in that group are now my best friends,” she said.

Harmon is busy too. She commutes to Torrance to work--she’s a journalist for the newspaper there--and just had a baby. At first she had to drag her husband to the historical meetings; now he enjoys them too.

“Seal Beach is a small town,” she said, “but it has such a rich history. We used to be sin city to the rum runners.”

It’s our mobile society that contributes to the problem, said Diane Ryan, who teaches Orange County history through several adult education classes: “Our population moves around so much people don’t always develop ties to their community.”

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But then, maybe some historical groups need to reshape their image, suggests Robert Dale, 46, who belongs to the La Habra Old Settlers Historical Society.

“It’s partly a marketing problem; some people see them as just pioneer clubs and don’t know they’re welcome,” he said.

Not many old settlers are in their 30s.

This is not to say we shouldn’t appreciate older residents dedicated to historical preservation. But they won’t be here forever. They need a boost from the younger set.

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Getting involved is easy. Just call your local library or City Hall. I’d love to go to one of these meetings and have someone ask me: “Are you someone’s father?”

Readers may reach Hicks by calling (714) 564-1049 or by e-mail at jerry.hicks@latimes.com


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