The Compelling Stories of Our Recent Past

SMC professors compile South Bend’s COVID stories

As the audio clips began, the dozen or so audience members quieted. Those who gathered at the South Bend Heritage Center for this unique presentation found themselves transported back to the height of the pandemic, when fear combined with resolve, when uncertainty met with hope. The audio clips contained memories spoken from those who lived them; a collection of voices from the community to remember—and archive—how COVID-19 affected South Bend.

“Listening to Pandemic Narratives: Selections from COVID-19 Oral Histories in the South Bend Area” is a project of Jamie Wagman, professor of history and gender and women’s studies, and Julia Dauer, professor of English at Saint Mary’s. The event was held on October 11 and featured audio clips from interviews conducted with members of the South Bend community to get different accounts of what pandemic life was like for residents. 

“Together, we interviewed an emergency room nurse, a public high school teacher, a mother of four, a community organizer, a yogi, a small business owner, an oboist, a priest, and the director of the LGBTQ Center, among others,” Wagman said. “They reflected over loss, isolation, at times gains, and how they are emerging today. Altogether, their narratives make up a generation of people who have collective memory built around the trauma of the pandemic.”

Wagman and Dauer had noted other oral historians doing these collections but no one was documenting South Bend. So, a year ago, the two researchers worked with students to compile the recordings. Through a class called Doing History, the professors taught students  historiography and the critical examination of the sources who write historical documents. The students conducted dozens of interviews that year. 

Dauer said looking at these narratives from a humanities perspective helped to process the events of COVID. Using audio to capture the stories rather than video lent a particularly compelling sensory experience for the audience. 

“Their memories differ and coexist with one another, not disputing facts but rather offering a layered picture of what life was like for residents of South Bend throughout quarantine, vaccination rollout and beyond,” Wagman said.

Also significant was the gathering process itself. “Oral history gives people space to remember and work out their thoughts about their memory, especially important during the pandemic where there haven't always been spaces for working out our ideas about complex challenges,” Wagman said. 

The initial presentation of the Oral Histories project took place on campus. The creators said it was important to host a second, more public event to a greater, South Bend audience.

Dauer hopes people will reflect on the stories they heard about COVID-19. “ As the pandemic evolves and enters new phases, stories from 2020, 2021, and early 2022 remain important,” she said. “I think we should continue to listen to these stories and reflect on the pandemic and its impacts on individual lives and communities at all levels.”

Saint Mary’s students and staff contributed to an exhibit at The History Museum in South Bend. ‘Fight Fear: Pandemics Past and Present’ addresses historical illnesses and the fears that came with them as we experienced Covid-19. The display is open until July 2023.

“Listening to Pandemic Narratives: Selections from Covid-19 Oral Histories in the South Bend Area” is part of a series sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and Indiana Humanities as part of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.   

October 12, 2022

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