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Johns Hopkins UniversityArts and Sciences Magazine

Stories from Many Lasts

Few people alive can tell you what it was like to fly with Amelia Earhart, or serve in World War I, or surrender a home run to Babe Ruth, or work alongside Thomas Edison.

Stuart Lutz ’92 can. Lutz is the author of The Last Leaf: Voices of History's Last Known Survivors (Prometheus Books, 2010). For the past 12 years he has traveled the country collecting firsthand accounts from witnesses to some of history's most important events. Theirs are stories of achievement, survival, innovation, and inspiration--links to the past filled with details and reflections.

"The point of the book was to collect these real stories before they are all gone and these accounts become something that academic historians debate," Lutz says. "Once the last person who flew with Amelia Earhart is gone, that experience can never be re-created."

Some of the more than three dozen people he interviewed for
the book are:

  • The last three surviving widows of the Civil War, two Confederate and one Union (they were in their late teens when they wed their octogenerian husbands).
  • The last suffragette to march for women's rights before the 19th Amendment was passed.
  • The last survivor of the Lusitania, which sank in 1915.
  • The last major designer of the ENIAC, the first electric general purpose computer.
  • One of the last people to escape the Nazi death camp Sobibor.

The idea for the book grew out of Lutz's lifelong fascination with history. As a child he would sit transfixed at the kitchen table as his great-grandparents shared tales of their immigration to the U.S. from Russia and their first glimpse of an airplane. After graduating from Hopkins with a degree in history, he became a historic document specialist and an avid reader of newspaper obituaries. Fifteen years ago when Lutz saw a story that one of the last Confederate widows, Alberta Martin, was still alive, something clicked. "Wouldn't it be great to collect the stories of other lasts?" he thought.

Using Google and local historical societies as leads, the Maplewood, N.J., resident found his interview subjects and traveled to 18 states to collect their stories. Most of those he interviewed were in their 80s and 90s at the time they shared their oral histories and many have died since then. "I'm glad we had a chance to talk," he says. "But every time one of them dies, a chapter in American history in which that person is involved has closed."

Lutz says he'd like to collect a second volume of stories from more of history's "last leaves" and already has a list of 15 people he'd like to interview. Tops on the list: The last living person to be on Wall Street the day of the 1929 stock market crash. He's 104, and Lutz would have wanted to include him in The Last Leaf but was unable to land the interview.

It seems that with the stock market fluctuating so wildly last summer, the gentleman was too busy with media requests and didn't have time to talk.

 

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