“Someone in the future wants to hear from you. Don’t disappoint them.”
Deb Moore, Personal Historian
Deb Moore, Personal Historian
In 2003, Grand Rapids native Deb Moore started her business, The Stories of Your Life, and joined the Association of Personal Historians (APH), a worldwide organization of 650 members dedicated to preserving individual, company, and community histories. She previously taught 33 years for the Grand Rapids Public Schools.
Deb began researching and recording her family history in the early 1970s, soon after the birth of her first child. When she learned of the field of personal history, Deb immediately knew this was an opportunity to turn her avocation into her vocation. Since then, she has helped more than 65 people write their memoirs and preserve them as books. In addition, she gives presentations on memoir writing in the community, conducts interviews for the Veteran’s History Project, and teaches classes at OLLI at Aquinas College. Deb successfully collaborated with five other area members of APH to document the professional lives and motivations of Grand Rapids’ leading philanthropists resulting in the broadcast-quality DVD entitled The S.O.U.L. (Sharing Our Uncommon Legacy) of Philanthropy, released in the fall of 2008 and aired on public television.
by Terri Hamilton
The Grand Rapids Press, December 11, 2011
Deb Moore is a memory saver. She preserves the time you chased the coal truck hoping for a stray chunk to fall off, the dance where you wore your pink formal dress and met that cute boy, the lights on the dance floor twirling like snowflakes.
She listens and ponders and types and hands you a nicely bound book, full of your memories and smelling like fresh ink.
The whole process makes her think some pretty deep thoughts.
“We are just one person on this huge continuum of people, stretching back through history and forward through history,” Moore muses. “It makes you cognizant of your mortality.”
All the more reason to write it all down.
Moore, 60, has devoted decades to people’s stories, in all sorts of ways.
She writes peoples’ memoirs for a living, interviewing folks about their lives, then preserving the stories in hard-bound books.
She interviews area veterans about their war stories on video for the Veterans History Project through the Library of Congress, so future generations can know their tales.
She has chronicled the history of Holland Public Schools, Catholic Central and West Catholic, First (Park) Congregational Church. Her articles about local history have been published in history magazines and her work lauded by Grand Rapids city historian Gordon Olson and Grand Rapids Diocesan archivist the Rev. Dennis Morrow.
Moore also was a prominent member of the S.O.U.L. of Philanthropy project, interviewing leading Grand Rapids philanthropists for a video shown on local public television.
Along the way, she has learned some things, about people, their memories, the value of stories.
Most clients for her memoir business, called The Stories of Your Life, are older.
Many times, they come from humble backgrounds, Moore says, sitting at her dining room table, people’s life stories piled around her.
“They’ll say to me, ‘There’s nothing interesting about me. Why would you want to write about me?’”
She smiles and shakes her head.
“Everybody has a story,” she says. “The things they went through, during the Depression — their grandkids’ lives are nothing like that.
“They didn’t have heat. People followed the coal truck hoping a piece of coal would fall off.
“One guy rode his bike to the dentist’s house to do lawn work in exchange for dental work he couldn’t afford,” she says.
“He rode from 28th Street and Clyde Park Avenue SW to East Grand Rapids. That’s quite a bike ride. I don’t know a kid today who would do that.
“When I look back at women’s lives, what difficult lives they had,” Moore muses. “They had all these kids, no conveniences, no money. It makes you appreciate what people went through before you.”
First, a teacher
Before Moore did this for a living, she was a teacher, mostly in special education, for 33 years.
She taught adults with special needs through Grand Rapids community education and spent the last decade of her teaching career at Ottawa Hills High School, teaching teens in wheelchairs with spina bifida and cerebral palsy.
She organized proms for them and painstakingly planned their meaningful graduation ceremonies.
“She finds people endlessly interesting,” says Moore’s daughter, Sara Moore Kerai, 38, a hospital chaplain in Washington, D.C. “No matter who she sits down with, she wants to get to know them.”
“By the time she was 30, she had researched and written a whole book about our family history before there was Internet, before there was email,” Kerai says.
“She was writing letters to Ireland and the Netherlands.
“It’s been a passion of hers as long as I can remember. She always says if you don’t preserve your family’s stories, they’ll be gone in two generations.
“She thinks any story is important, no matter how mundane or unsavory,” Kerai says. “She wants people to be proud about the life they’ve lived, the legacy they leave, the things they’ve done.
“Mom doesn’t shy away from any kind of person,” Kerai says.
She tells of a photo she saw once of her mom at a dance she organized for the special-needs adults she taught.
One of her students was a cross dresser, Kerai recalls.
“Mom brought him a prom dress to wear to the dance and, somewhere, there’s a picture of my mom dancing with him. She’s comfortable with anyone. It’s a gift.”
Ask Moore what drew her to teaching special education, and she doesn’t talk about sympathy or empathy or any of the things you might expect.
“I always thought of them as normal,” she says of her students. “They have limitations, but I thought, Let’s do the best we can. Find a fit for them — something they can do.
“I would just take them for who they are, like any kid,” she says.
The matter-of-fact, no-nonsense side of her fit the special education classroom, she says.
Some people might feel sorry for them, she says.
“I don’t. I accept how things are.”
She pauses, thinking.
“A friend of mine once said she didn’t think it was worth it to teach them,” Moore finally says. “How can you say one person is more important than another because they’re more intelligent?”
“Your heart is the most important thing. And they have that. They have all that.”
Moore is a handy woman, the one who fixes things around the house. She loves to be on the dance floor, and when daughter Sara married Jitesh, a man from India, Moore was the first one at the wedding reception eager to learn Indian dances.
She’s a board game queen who hates to lose. She was brave enough to walk out onto the glass skywalk that hovers 4,000 feet over the Grand Canyon. She calls quitting smoking after 24 years addicted “the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
“I had to see a chiropractor for the stress,” she says. “But I wanted to be alive for my grandchildren.”
Moore calls the memories she helps preserve “the leaves on the family tree.”
The cost for one of her memoir books runs $1,800 and up, depending on how many interview sessions the client requests.
“It isn’t easy interviewing somebody about their life,” she says.
People don’t finish their sentences, she says. “They skip around. People say, ‘Well, you just ask people questions, then write what they say.’ To make it a flowing narrative, that’s hard work.”
She does it well, says Robin Koop, who hired Moore to write the life story of her mom, Elizabeth Thompson, in 2006.
“Deb threw herself 100 percent into it,” says Koop, of Holland. “She asked a lot of probing questions, she put Mom at ease. She took her life story and wrapped a big bow around it.”
Koop’s mom died last year, and when she talks about the value of the book now, she cries.
People pay Moore for the end product — a bound book about their life — but Moore sees the value in the journey along the way.
Life review is healthy for an older person, she says.
“Often, they’re depressed. They think, ‘I’m a burden. Nobody needs me.’ Then, they look at their life and see the vibrant, important, vital things they did in life.
“They say, ‘I guess there were happy times. I contributed to society.’ It’s affirming.”
The details are different in everybody’s life, but there are commonalities, Moore says.
“We all want the best for our kids. We want to do something we think is worthwhile, contributing. Everybody wants to be happy.”
“Life has turning points,” she says. “Sometimes they’re quirky, unexpected. You get a job and it leads you on a path. You meet a person. You never know where life will take you.”
Her own life has gone pretty smoothly, but Moore knows as well as anybody that everybody has a story.
Hers started in Grand Rapids, growing up over on Plymouth and Burton.
The daughter of the late Jack and Mary Bek, she grew up with brother John and sisters Sandy and Cindy.
She went to Immaculate Heart of Mary school and church and Catholic Central High, graduating in 1969.
Her dad was a traveling salesman for Keeler Brass, her mom stayed at home while the kids were young, then worked for years in the toy department at Jacobson’s department store.
Young Deb loved stories way back then, happily devouring tales of Nancy Drew and biographies of famous people.
She met Terry Moore in summer 1969 at a cottage party in Port Sheldon.
“The party must have been a drag,” Terry, 61, recalls, “because I noticed she was sitting alone at the kitchen table working on a crossword puzzle. In spite of her intimidating good looks and being out of my league, I decided to saunter over and see if I might assist.”
They clicked. They got married when Deb was 20, still in college at Western Michigan University. Terry was 21 and had just graduated from the University of Michigan.
They were married 20 days when she got pregnant.
He didn’t have a job, she recalls.
“I was pregnant. We were as happy as could be. Then, he got a job teaching community ed, for $7 an hour. We were in heaven.”
When Terry started Michigan Golfer magazine back in 1982, Deb was his trusted proofreader. Now, he returns the favor as she crafts clients’ memoirs.
“She’s industrious and focused,” he says. “She doesn’t waste time on worry.”
Terry, a public relations consultant for the golf industry, happily tells how one of his friends once said, “Terry doesn’t buy lottery tickets because he already hit the jackpot with Deb.”
“We still work on crosswords together,” he says, just like that day they first met. “We’re still next to each other, filling in the blanks. Lucky me.”
Moore gives a lot of talks on writing about your life, including to middle school students.
“I always tell them, ‘Write from your heart, not from your head,’” she says.
“If somebody were to make a movie about your life, what are the top 10 shots? Make a list of them. Pick one, and expand on it.
“Write it down as if you’re telling someone — your mom or a friend. Just get it out on paper.
It’s good, no matter what your age, to relive happy memories,” she says.
“And to confront something not so pleasant helps you work through your grief. Maybe you lost your job and you didn’t think it was fair. Writing gets your thoughts out of your head and onto paper, so you can move on.”
Every time she hands over a newly bound book of someone’s memories, she’s a bit better for it, Moore says.
“It makes you less critical of people anytime you get to know somebody, when you know where they come from, their back story,” she says. “I’ve become more compassionate and understanding.
“Stories are what count.”
Marek A. Stawiski, M.D.,
as told to Deb Moore
used with permission
My mother, Irena Meyer, was born in Poland in 1915 during World War I, while her family was running east, away from the Germans. I don’t quite understand this because her father was half German. I know they almost perished from hunger. They returned sometime later to Poland, and my mother was raised in Lodz. She earned her dental degree at the University of Warsaw around 1938, right before the second World War.
She met my father, Felix Stawiski, when a wealthy girlfriend invited her to her farm, and he was also at the gathering. Felix was six years older than Irena and had earned his law degree from the University of Warsaw. He was her first boyfriend, and she fell deeply in love with him. Felix, as they say, liked women. Irena was a beautiful woman. They married in 1943, and I was born in Warsaw on May 10, 1944-turbulent times in that city’s history.
Warsaw was traditionally home to the Polish intelligentsia-professors, doctors, military leaders, and intellectuals. At the start of World War II, in September 1939, the Germans took control of the city. By November, the Nazis issued decrees intended to control and oppress the Jews, including an order forcing all Jews over the age of twelve to identify themselves by wearing a Star of David on their sleeve. During the summer of 1942, about 300,000 Jews were sent from Warsaw to the death camp at Treblinka. The Jewish Resistance successfully fought against the Germans for twenty days in the spring of 1943 in what was called the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The Germans eventually crushed the revolt and captured 56,000 Jews, shooting thousands and sending the others to concentration camps. This event was well portrayed in the 2002 film, The Pianist.
Without warning, the Gestapo would round up Poles by blocking a street from both ends with their cars, trapping everybody in between. Then the officers would take their prisoners to Gestapo Police Headquarters, where it was decided who to shoot and who to send to concentration camps. My father was caught in one of those traps. A compulsive guy, he carried a notebook with hundreds of addresses in his jacket pocket, so the authorities felt he might be connected somehow with the Polish Underground, and it looked as if they might send him to a concentration camp. My beautiful, blonde mother took all the gold jewelry she had and went to the Gestapo. She smiled at the men, and they liked her. The officer in charge had two choices-he could take the gold and shoot her because she was trying to bribe him, or he could take the gold and let my father go. Thankfully, he did the latter. I think Mother was pregnant with me at the time.
I was just a few months old when the Russian Army approached Warsaw from the east and camped on the other side of the Vistula River. They encouraged the Polish Home Army to expel the Germans from the city and promised to act as backup. On August 1, 1944, the Polish fighters attacked the Germans and kept them at bay for thirty days. The Soviets never came to the aid of the Poles, however. They also refused to let in American and British ammunition and relief supplies. It was in Stalin’s interest to destroy the entire Polish intelligentsia, for it would then be far easier for him to control the peasants and the workers.
According to my mother, there was a great deal of bombardment as the Russian troops approached Warsaw that summer. Following one of the bombardments, a Russian spy came to inspect and to report on the state of the city. While there, he developed an acute toothache and came to my mother, a dentist, for help. She extracted his tooth. He didn’t have money to pay her but said that he would give her an important secret instead. The Russian advised her to take me and whatever she could carry and leave Warsaw the next day because the fighting would soon erupt. Mother got a horse and buggy, and took me south about two hundred miles to Krakow. She left behind my nanny, Posia, as well as my father, who would not leave because he was so independent.
Within a week or so, the worst uprising yet broke out in Warsaw. My father decided to run, realizing that if he stayed, he would be a hero but would die. He ran through the sewers and escaped Warsaw. The German troops destroyed the ghetto and killed about 200,000 Poles-all the children and almost all the women. Those who didn’t die were sent on trains to the concentration camp at Auschwitz.
By October 2, the Polish Resistance was completely crushed, but the Germans were extremely angry with all Poles for the uprising. In retaliation, they razed 85 percent of the city and deported what few people were left. My birthplace was destroyed.
Although Posia, my sixty-year-old nanny, didn’t resist the soldiers, they still arrested her and put her on a train bound for Auschwitz. When the train made a stop, she just got off and walked into a field. The Nazis shot at her but apparently decided to let her go because she was an old lady. With only rotten potatoes that she found in the fields for nourishment, Posia walked for two weeks before finding my mother and me. It would be another six months before my father joined us.
Thus, my family was reunited in Krakow and survived the war.
What Others Say
“Deb Moore is an excellent history researcher and writer. She is thorough and knows Grand Rapids history. We have been delighted to publish her work in the Grand River Valley History magazine.”
– Gordon Olson
Grand Rapids City Historian Emeritus
“Deb Moore has done some fine work in local history, and demonstrates a passion for ‘telling it like it was’ delightfully and vividly. Her writing helps to ensure that memories remain both colorful and accurate.”
– Father Dennis Morrow
Grand Rapids Diocesan Archivist
“My daughter said, ‘Mom, that sounds just like you!’ ”
– Gloriann L.
“Deb understands the art of writing and the specific requirements for publishing. She was always available for advice and encouragement. I would not hesitate to contact her for future book projects and would recommend her without reservation to anyone who is interested in writing their life stories.”
– Ken V.
In 2007 and 2008, Deb was a member of the SOUL of Philanthropy team. The group of personal historians worked with Calvin College filmmaker Daniel Garcia to produce a one-hour documentary on the stories of thirty leading Grand Rapids philanthropists entitled “The Gift of All: a community of Givers.” The film was shown multiple times on PBS.
Deb contributed two stories to the anthology “My Words are Gonna Linger,” published in 2009 by the Association of Personal Historians (APH).
In 2014, Deb and APH colleague Betty Epperly wrote an anthology of stories about fifty individuals and families whose lives have been changed by local nonprofits called “Ripple Effects: Ten West Michigan Nonprofits Serve, Inspire, Transform.” The book is available at Schuler Books & Music and on amazon.com by searching “Ripple Effects Michigan.”