Tomorrow's history is today's news

May 23, 2009|By CHRIS COPLEY

In a 1963 speech, Washington Post publisher Phil Graham described the work of journalists as "a first rough draft of history." It's useful to remind myself, as I scramble to hit daily deadlines, to take a longer view on the work we do here at The Herald-Mail.

I have always liked history. I still write the occasional story for the Lifestyle section, and when my staff discussed how to preview the annual National Pike Festival wagon train, I took the story myself. I decided to explore how history is relevant to us today, especially since so many people seem to think history is boring, boring, boring.

The people I spoke with when researching "History is a) dead; b) alive" (in the May 8 edition of our Family section) raised fascinating points.

I usually think of history as a single story line stretching back across the years. But Keith Snyder, a park ranger at Antietam National Battlefield, pointed out history basically is only the stuff we know, or think we know. The stuff we don't know isn't included.


Snyder said history changes as new information comes to light. He said descendants of Civil War soldiers sometimes visit Antietam and bring old journals or artifacts. These help fill in gaps in the body of knowledge about the battle and about the Civil War in general -- the experience of surgeons, of artillerymen, of bugle boys, of soldiers who were women pretending to be men, of civilians in Sharpsburg, of families back home struggling to put food on the table.

These old records and journals expand and change history, Snyder said.

"History" simply is the parts of the past that somehow are preserved and available to us today. The parts that aren't passed down basically don't exist.

Take my family, for example. I know about my father, Norman Copley, a United Methodist pastor who served churches, mostly urban, in Ohio and who died at age 56 of aggressive brain cancer. I know about his father, Cloyce Copley, a Methodist pastor who served mostly small-town churches in Ohio and who died at age 100.

But my grandfather's father, Warren Copley, is mostly a gap in history. He was born in the 1870s and died before I met him. He lived in rural Ohio. He was a farmer. And that's about all I know. He was no one special that I'm aware of -- just an ordinary person. I don't know what crops he grew, what meals he ate, his favorite books, his political leanings, what he did for fun. That part of history simply doesn't exist.

Which brings me back to The Herald-Mail. We publish the "first rough draft" of our area's history -- decisions of government councils, police reports, business activity and other news of the day. We seek out ordinary people and tell their stories. And we publish landmark events in a person's life -- births, graduations, enlistments marriages, deaths, property purchases.

We strive to be accurate, fair and thorough. We want our record of the Tri-State area to be not only good history, but compelling reading. That's who we're here for -- readers of tomorrow, next week or next century.

Chris Copley is Lifestyle editor of The Herald-Mail. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2343, or by e-mail at

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