Written by Jan Jaben-Eilon Sunday, May 30 2010
Snapshot: Deborah Gunter
Deborah Gunter, 60, has lived her entire life in rural Southeast Missouri, mostly in Benton, population 798, where she lives with her husband, Roy. Her career has included a catering business, working for a university in Cape Girardeau and for a Holiday Inn, but she really found her passion for history when her mother died. Now retired and past president of the Scott County Historical and Genealogy Society, Gunter has written several historical books about her county with her writing partner and friend, Conrad Hudson, and is in the process of writing even more. Gunter and her husband (whom she’s married twice) have two sons, ages 32 and 36.
Womenetics: Why did you decide to research and write a book (One-Room School Houses of Scott County) about old schoolhouses?
Gunter: We were actually asked to write the book by a number of people who were getting up in age and who were afraid the information would never be collected. It took three years to do the research. I did all the typing. We interviewed teachers and individuals who went to each of the 58 schools, and we made stories and put them together. Then we went to the courthouse and copied all the children’s names (Those who attended the schools.) in five-year increments, so if you were looking for a relative, you could find them.
It was a twofold project: helping to tell about the school and also to tell people who was living here at the time. The oldest person I interviewed was 85 years old. The last one-room schoolhouse closed in 1968. We weren’t paid for the work. I did volunteer work for the Scott County Historical and Genealogy Society. We worked out of the library and had access to the local newspaper. We sold 200 books about the schoolhouses.
Womenetics: What attracted you to write about historical buildings? Have you always been interested in history?
Gunter: My mother died 13 years ago, and she didn’t know her grandparents. She left a box to go through, and I realized there was a lot of history to which I wanted to connect. I found my mother’s family. People helped me, so I wanted to help others. I joined the historical society in 2005. My sister-in-law was president, and when she got cancer I took over. I could make the decisions about what projects we wanted to do. I grew up loving history. My father was very interested, and we researched his family when my kids were young. I put it together and wrote a book. A lot of people wanted a copy for the great niece and great nephews. When I saw what others did to help me, I wanted to give back.
Womenetics: The fact that you write about old schoolhouses and historical landmarks reminds me of the book, Bridges of Madison County. Do your books tell a human story, too, about these old buildings?
Gunter: (Laughing) Oh, yes, people refer to that; it was a very good book. Each story is related to how each child remembered it, and not all remembered the same things. They tell a description of the building and the teachers and the other kids.
Womenetics: How many books have you written?
Gunter: We completed a book about the Scott County Courthouse and its officials from 1822 to 2010. First we did it as a photo book. There were five courthouses in Benton and one in Commerce. We had pictures of four of the six courthouses and wrote stories about what went on. We got details from the newspaper of what it looked like and how the lawyers would come to blows and where the judges sat. That was a small book. We sold out the 50 copies. Benton is 150 years old this year, so now we’re re-ordering copies for the celebration this month. A lot of people don’t live here but learn that their fathers and grandfathers were in the book. I also put out a six-page newsletter.
Womenetics: Have you always wanted to be a writer? Can you actually make a career from the writing you do?
Gunter: I have always liked to play around with it, but I never thought I could be a writer. Only with Conrad’s help can I do it. But I’ve always been interested in the historical part. My children don’t even know what an outdoor toilet is. There’s so much to learn from history. We try to come up with old photos and photos of family members. We have over 100 members in the historical society. We do pedigree charts. I love the research; that’s the fun part. You get to go through all those dusty books and interview all those old people, and I take my portable copy machine to copy the photos so I don’t have to take them away from people and have to return them.
Womenetics: You live in a rural area; what do you do for fun? Travel to the big cities?
Gunter: There are all kinds of things around here. We are near Cape Girardeau, about 20 minutes away, and there’s a shopping mall there. We’re the county seat, and 20 miles south of us is Sikeston. There are historical things down there, including an art gallery, and they are 150 years old, too, so there are events every weekend.
Womenetics: Have you always lived in rural Missouri?
Gunter: Yes, I’ve always lived here or in Morley.
Womenetics: What have you learned from your research and writing that has had the most impact on you?
Gunter: I’ve learned there’s so much history that is fading away. There are only four or five of us working on this, and we won’t be able to preserve all the history. We want to see it captured on paper with as many photos, so people in the future will know what was going on.
I have people come to me now who I knew as kids because their grandpa’s name was in the book. But they’re going to look at other pages (without his name) and see what was going on. I think it’s important. Elderly people really want this done.
Now Conrad and I are working on a book about landmarks in the area; many are disappearing, like churches. We applied for a $250 grant to do the research, and once we’re done with the research we hope they’ll give us another grant to find the old photos and put the book together. I’ve got 50 to 60 pages typed on it already. We’ve had a lot of interest in the book.
Jan Jaben-Eilon was a founding staff writer of the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Since then, she has been the international editor of Advertising Age magazine and has written for such publications as The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, Washington Journalism Review, and Consumer Reports. She is the author of soon-to-be-published (There is) Life After Cancer. Jan and her husband have homes in Atlanta and Jerusalem.