Archive

Posts Tagged ‘Bill Gonzalez’

Lifelong fascination with history feeds Bill Gonzalez and his photo archival work at Durham Museum

December 26, 2018 Leave a comment

Lifelong fascination with history feeds Bill Gonzalez and his photo archival work at Durham Museum

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in El Perico (el-perico.com)

A glass plate portrait loaded with family secrets and a chance exposure to a noted photographic collection foreshadowed the photo activist work Bill Gonzalez does today at Durham Museum.

He grew up in South Omaha the oldest of eight children of Mexican immigrant parents. An old image of his grandparents in Mexico intrigued him enough as a boy to ask questions. He discovered his maternal grandfather was a wealthy rancher who married multiple times to younger women. Then there was the tale of a great aunt in the family’s ancestral village who was hidden from marauding bandits in the lawless post-Mexican Revolution years.

“I found all that about my heritage really interesting,” he said. “The stories I heard provided me with a connection to that part of my family I never knew.”

A 1967 slideshow at South High School showing select photos of early Omaha from the Bostwick-Frohardt Collection motivated him to learn about the stories behind the people, places and events of his hometown.

“Those pictures made such a deep impression on me. Something that happened so far back led to something a lot greater in my life.”

Studying historical photos, he said, “is like looking through a window into the past.”

“You can see people as they were doing what they were doing at a certain period in time. You can’t travel into the past but you can look into it. That’s kind of neat.”

Gonzalez was always inquisitive and an avid reader.

“I mean, how many 11-year-olds do you know that read ‘The Illiad’? I was a nerdy kid. I wasn’t into playing baseball and things like that. I spent a lot of time in the South Omaha library.”

He’s the product of tough love.

“When I found out other kids got an allowance, I broached the subject with my dad. I said, ‘Popi, don’t you think I should get an allowance?’ He said, ‘Hijo, I allow you to live.’ So I started hustling – running errands for neighbors, cutting grass, shoveling snow. I got my social security card at 12. I’ve done everything – you name it.”

Nothing was as satisfying as his current Durham gig.

“The best part of my job is helping people find pictures they have personal connections to, like the neighborhood church, school, movie theater or park they used to go to. When I can find a picture that means something special to somebody, that is the best high I can get.

“Anytime I find pictures of South Omaha, they evoke memories in me, I know that part of town. South Omaha in its own right is very historic. It’s such an eclectic mixture of ethnic groups and nationalities. It’s contributed heavily to the prosperity of this town. Thousands upon thousands of people are living here today because an ancestor came to South Omaha to work in the packinghouses.”

He takes seriously the role the archive serves.

“We’re the keepers of the past. I really think what we have here and what we do here is very important. It provides a continuity of memory. Museums and archives really are the storehouses of memories of humanity.”

In searching for pictures in the Durham collections, he said, “it helps if you’re a native Omahan.”

“I know about places that used to be, things that happened. Not just pieces of memories, but history. I’ve got a mind like a black suit that picks up white lint or in this case little pieces of information. I am not an expert, but I know a little bit about a lot of things, and it’s all useful.”

Experience helps, too. “I’ve been here 13 years-plus, so by now I have a fairly good idea of what we have in the collections that might be pertinent. Sometimes I have to piece together information to figure out what I’m looking for and where to find it .Where to find it is the trick because we have so many collections. Usually I can narrow it down to one collection.”

 

From the Bostwick-Frohardt Collection, this 1911 image was taken on top of the Union Pacific Railroad Building at 14th & Dodge streets looking east.

 

He compares the searches he makes to a hunt.

“I go out and hunt pictures down for people. It’s a lot easier now than when I started because we didn’t have any of this stuff digitized in a searchable data base. There’s still a lot of hit and miss searching. I strike out a lot. I wish I could have a picture for everything everybody wants, but I don’t. But now you can go online and search for this stuff by keywords. It makes it more accessible to more people more of the time.”

He conducts searches for “a wide range of people with a wide range of interests from personal to professional.”

Educators, historians, journalists, students, laborers, and folks from other walks of life request his help.

He works with highly educated interns and staff but feels he has something to contribute they cannot.

“Here I am a high school graduate and yet I can sit and talk to them about things they don’t have any background on.”

Gonzalez might never have done this work if not for an injury on his previous job that forced early retirement.

“I was sitting at home trying to figure out what I was going to do with the rest of my life when this came along. It pulled me back into the world.”

He began as a volunteer before joining the paid staff.

“I couldn’t have found a better position for someone of my bent who enjoys history and loves the history of his town. I don’t really think of it as a job.”

He’s discovered “there’s a whole world of people out there that have the same interest” he does in history.

The Durham photo archive is a resource for the whole community, he emphasizes.

“It belongs to everybody.  It’s available for the public to use.”

For Gonzalez, there’s nothing better than sharing his passion with others.

“I love showing my pictures to people, telling them what they’re looking at.”

He’s grown a following for his Flashback Friday posts on the Durham’s Facebook page.

He makes occasional public presentations.

“I’d like to do more of that because that’s what got me hooked on this. I’d love to go out and talk to a group of kids and maybe have one of those kids study history or get involved with the museum because of what they saw. That would be a neat thing.

“It would be full circle.”

Contact the museum’s photo archive department at photoarchive@durhammuseum.org or by phone at 402-444-5071.

The archive can be searched online anytime at durhammuseum.contentdm.oclc.org.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.


Image may contain: one or more people, tree and outdoor
No automatic alt text available.

Stereoscopic photo of 3rd Nebraska Volunteers in parade after their return from the Spamish-American War and the

viewfinder used to see this and other early 3D images.

Image may contain: 1 person, crowd, wedding and outdoor
From the John Savage Collection. When Omaaha’s downtown sidewalks teemeed with people.
This is from circa 1967 outside J.L. Brandeis & Sons Department Store.

Advertisements
%d bloggers like this: