Larry Lehmer is barely awake every morning when he grabs his diary and begins writing whatever comes to mind. In about 20 minutes, he’s scrawled two pages worth of thoughts in a stream of consciousness exercise - a very personal peek into who he is and what makes him tick. It’s a habit he started after reading his grandmother’s journals, 28 years worth of real life snippets written in longhand stretching from 1952 to 1980.
“It’s great to see how she viewed the world, how she related to the things that were happening around her,” he said.
It’s not surprising that Larry has a high regard for the written word. He spent more than 30 years in the newspaper business, 24 of them as senior editor, reporter and newsroom manager of the Des Moines Register. The stories he enjoys most are those that highlight ordinary, everyday people.
The first story he ever wrote for a newspaper was a hard-luck tale about an Indian teenager who transferred from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to a high school in Council Bluffs, Iowa, where he went out for football. The young man had great hopes for his future in that sport but during his first week of practice, he broke his leg in three places. And that ended his football career.
“You know his dreams were shattered,” Larry said. “But he didn’t have a big name, and you don’t usually hear about people who don’t get their names in the paper all the time. Those are the people I liked to write about.”
Larry, a graduate of Omaha University and the American Press Institute in Washington D.C., started at the Council Bluffs Nonpareil as a part-timer, and the newspaper bug bit him hard from the very beginning. It was 1968, the year Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy Jr. were assassinated, and Larry immediately knew he wanted to be part of reporting news as it happened.
He is also author of “The Day the Music Died: The Last Tour of Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens,” published by Schirmer Books. The book’s success landed him a job with E! cable television network, where he was featured in an episode of its Mysteries and Scandals series. He was also a contributor to a VH1 documentary on Buddy Holly.
But Larry’s career always dealt with other people’s stories. Writing about himself is fairly new. Besides his daily diary, Larry also jots down thoughts that pop into his mind during the day, the kinds of things it’s easy to forget unless they’re written down right away. Later on, he puts them into chronological order. His musings are something he expects to share later on with his three children, but not until he’s asked.
When Larry gradually lost interest in the newspaper business, he started looking around for another type of work where he could make use of his journalistic skills. That evolved into writing other people’s family histories and later into classes that teach people how to perform the task on their own.
Those early efforts began as a sideline while he worked at The Register, but soon turned into a full-time business called “When Words Matter.” His Des Moines-based company specializes in preserving personal, business and organizational histories.
When Words Matter helps people write ethical wills, which are also called legacy letters. The idea is to pass on one’s hopes and dreams to future generations in much the same way as a legal will distributes possessions. For an hourly or per-project fee, he and his staff of professional historians write legacy letters and histories of varying lengths for their clients.
“Your life is unique, and we are committed to making certain that your written legacy reflects your experiences, hopes and dreams,” Larry says in his website, www.whenwordsmatter.com. He also has a blogsite: http://whenwordsmatter.typepad.com.
“People just need a little direction to get started,” he said. “I encourage them to look for memory triggers in things like yearbooks and scrapbooks that will help pry out the memories.”
In his classes, Larry presents a list of 90-100 possible characteristics, such as adventurous, adaptable, affectionate or ambitious, and clients choose those they see in themselves. From the 50 or so that are usually selected, Larry has class members choose their top three. They also look at big events in their lives such as weddings or career changes, and list people who have influenced them at different stages of their lives. This information forms the basis of the legacy letters.
For example, a legacy letter posted on Larry’s website shares a widow’s memories of her husband with a grieving granddaughter:
My precious Caitlin,
Your mother has told me how sad you have felt since Grandpa passed away in June. I miss him, too. But, as Grandpa used to say, “Nothing lasts forever, not even the good things.” Personally, I think he was only partially correct.
In our 52 years together, there were many, many good things that I’ll carry in my heart until my final breath. Today, I’d like to share a few of those things with you.
Remember that baseball hat you wore every day for one summer until it wore itself out, probably from all that dirt you wouldn’t let your mom wash out of it? That hat was grandpa’s idea.
“If she wants to play with boys, she ought to look like one of them,” he said. In his mind, you had as much of a right to play baseball as Freddy Brock or Jason Salazar. Believe me, not every grandpa felt that way at that time.
When grandpa was a young man, he was the best athlete in town. Why he would be interested in me, I didn’t understand at first. I hated sports. In fact, I hadn’t the foggiest notion of who he was when I first met him, although all my girlfriends positively swooned when he was around. He later told me that it was my ignoring him that he liked. Of course, as I got to know him, I learned that he was more than a football star.
Grandpa was probably the smartest man I ever met. He made the honor roll every semester that I remember, could tear apart a car motor and put it back together in an afternoon and had a real green thumb for gardening, especially flowers. I liked that, especially.
For our first date, he brought flowers he had grown himself. Imagine!
Interest in legacy letters grew by leaps and bounds after the tragedy of 9/11 when people began giving more thought to end of life issues.
“Two thirds of the people killed that day had no legal will, let alone a personal history,” Larry said. “A selling point of personal historians is that you never know what’s going to happen in the future.”
Although his business has slowed due to the sluggish economy, Larry feels it is even more important for people of this time period to leave a record for future generations.
“In my business, Mission No. 1 is collecting a family’s stories before they are lost so they can be shared with future generations. Story of My Life makes it easy for anyone to share their stories and to draw inspiration from others,” says Larry, when we first introduced ourselves as fans of his site and showed him this site.
Larry often quotes an African proverb that lends a sense of urgency to preserving family stories: “When an elder dies, it’s as if an entire library burns down.”
Thank you Larry, for sharing your Story with us.
Our Stories and pictures are the sole copyright of their Authors and may not be reprinted or used without their permission.© 2009 by Joyce Starr Macias and Story of My Life®