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Written by Kristyn Halbig Ziehm   
Wednesday, 01 March 2017 18:00

Passion for videography drives Saukville resident to capture people’s life stories

Dick Liersch is in the business of saving lives.GL

The Town of Saukville man isn’t a doctor, nurse or emergency medical technician. He’s a videographer who captures people’s life stories. 

During the past 35 years, Liersch has recorded hundreds of people — family members, friends and complete strangers — talking about their lives.  

“I’m a firm believer everybody deserves their 15 minutes of fame,” Liersch said.

“Everybody has something precious and interesting. Everybody’s life deserves to be remembered.”

Unless someone takes the time to record these stories, Liersch said, the person fades into history.

For example, Liersch said, he recently bought a photo album filled with portraits and tintypes for $5 at a Cedarburg rummage sale. When he asked the woman who was running the sale if she knew who the people were, she said they were members of her family — but she didn’t know their names or who they were.

“It’s as if their life never was,” Liersch said. “Can you imagine, in two generations, it will be like we never existed except for our birth certificate and a stone.”

It’s important to remember the everyday person, not just celebrities and movers-and-shakers, Liersch said.

“They are the builders of what we have today,” he said. “We inherited their efforts.”

Recording people’s life stories is Liersch’s passion. He does recordings not just for himself but also for the Port Washington and Ozaukee County historical societies

“It’s something I want to see done in historical societies throughout the U.S. so they’re not just saving objects but saving human stories,” he said.

Liersch has also turned his hobby into a business, creating a how-to CD, “My Living Legacy,” that he sells to help others who want to record oral histories.

Liersch, who said he grew up with a camera in his hand, comes from a long line of storytellers.

But he said he didn’t get into recording life histories until video equipment came out. Voice recordings, he said, don’t convey as much.

“I needed a visual way to do this,” Liersch said. “I wanted to see the people as they are, to hear them as they are, to see their inflections.”

Inspired by shows like “This is Your Life” and television shows that recalled the lives of celebrities, he started recording oral histories 35 years ago. Commercial video recording was in its infancy, and Liersch took the plunge in a big way, buying a $5,000 camera.

“My wife almost blew,” Liersch said. “I saw it for sale and just had to have it.”

One of his first subjects was his father, who lived a varied and interesting life.

“My dad was a great storyteller,” Liersch said.

In the video, his father talks about attending flight school with Charles Lindbergh at Lambert Field in St. Louis — they were roommates long before the aviator made his solo flight from New York to Paris. His father recalled that Lindbergh was known for “stealing” planes at night to train. 

His father talked about meeting Al Capone when the gangster wanted to buy bottles from his business, and about owning a gas and service station in Milwaukee, where he stored a car for famous gangster John Dillinger for a week. Dillinger had lunch each day with a woman at a nearby restaurant — until Liersch’s dad told him, “You know, you look at lot like John Dillinger.”

“He (Dillinger) said, ‘Get me my car. Get it right now’ and left,” Liersch said.

Liersch said he began taping strangers, walking up to people and asking them, “Do you have a story?”

The vast majority said yes and agreed to tell their stories on tape, he said.

“There is no stranger to Dick Liersch,” he said. “I can talk to anybody, and we all have stories.”

He’s interviewed everyone from Holocaust survivors to veterans, from businessmen to homemakers.

He interviewed one Holocaust survivor who escaped from three Nazi camps, including Dachau, where every time the man was marched toward the gas chambers a family member would pull him out of the line and take his place — first the man’s father, then his mother, then his sister.

While Liersch has devoted his time to recording other people’s stories, he hasn’t neglected his own. He started his video with a shot of his grandson sitting on his lap, telling him, “Someday, you’ll appreciate this.”

He periodically adds to the story, Liersch said, noting he has taped his camera’s memory card to the back of his driver’s license so it will never be lost.

Through the years, Liersch has changed equipment as technology changes. He currently uses a palm-sized camera — quite a change from the large, professional camera he started out with — to record people. In a pinch, he said, a cell phone works as well.

“If someone doesn’t want to invest in a $300 camera, you can use your phone,” he said, noting most phones today record in high-definition. The mini-SD cards in today’s phones can easily be downloaded and saved on a computer.

All someone needs to record a life story is a camera, Liersch said, adding that a microphone and lighting are ancillary purchases that can enhance the recording.

“Sound is the most important thing,” he noted. It’s important to eliminate background noise, choosing a place to record where there aren’t distractions such as a chiming clock or cell phone ringing.

Equally important is to eliminate a cluttered background that takes away from the subject matter, he said.

Liersch said he would love to get his CD into the hands of students who can interview their family members, noting it is a way to span the generation gap and increase an appreciation for history and how people have experienced it. 

“I want to get people of all generations to build their story,” he said.

It’s never too early to start, he added. Many people have told him they wish they had thought do record a family member’s history before their memories failed or they passed away.

“Don’t let the book close,” Liersch said, adding he listens to his father’s story at least once a year. “Do the story. Think about leaving your legacy.

“Think about the people you love who are no longer with you,” he said. “Wouldn’t it be nice to hear their voice once again — to hear them say, ‘I love you. I’m proud of you.’”

Liersch’s CD, “My Living Legacy,” which offers tips on how to record life stories, is available at the Port Washington Historical Society’s Resource Center in downtown Port, among other places.


Image Information: Dick Liersch began preserving oral histories with a large, professional camera but today uses a hand-held, palm-sized model to conduct his work.Photo by Sam Arendt

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