Monroe Historical Society receives honors

Kelly Sullivan

Truly keeping history alive doesn't come without effort.

Volunteers can easily amass countless unpaid hours of research, and spend years tracking down memories and cross-referencing facts. All of the above and other artifacts then must be catalogued and safely stored or put on display. The public also contribute tidbits and trinkets to the archives.

Monroe Historical Society volunteers have lived this reality for decades, including a majority who have helped out since the organization was formed four decades ago. Recently their fellow members invited them to tea to pay tribute to their work.

The appreciation event took place in June, and was coordinated by Monroe Historical Society board vice president Valeria Rae and museum director Chris Bee. Monroe Mayor Geoffrey Thomas went to present awards, and those being honored who could not be there were remembered by those who could. 

“Sadly, many have passed, but because they made the effort to preserve Monroe's history, perhaps their own history is preserved as well,” said longtime member Nancy Rockafeller in a news release. “It was a real cooperative effort on the part of many people and I am astonished at the momentum that has been created.”

Parties interested in gleaning information from historical society volunteers are directed to one volunteer or another depending on the topic. For this article the Monitor was encouraged to speak with Tom Parry and Merv Boyes, who run the museum from 1-3 p.m. on Mondays.

“The not so dynamic duo,” Parry said.

They are friends and longtime volunteers. If one doesn't have the answer to an inquiry, the other will.

Often Parry will crack a joke about Boyes having seen the seedier side of the city's history, and Parry knows how to push Boyes to get him to tell about it. Like when Boyes ran milk bottles during his childhood.

A stop on the delivery route included a well-known brothel that was just a few doors down from the museum, which used to be Monroe City Hall. The establishment's madam was the only person who ever tipped Boyes, he recalls with a laugh.

Bee said Boyes has a razor-sharp memory from when he grew up in the area. He can remember all the names of his classmates from school, and stories about different social hubs like the Avalon Movie Theater, where the first talkies were shown in Monroe.

A number of photos pinned up on the museum walls are of Boyes and his wife from their younger days as a couple, including one of her dressed in an ushers' outfit. He and Bee created the display for the Avalon, which neighbors an exhibit on the history of the city's schools.

Tom Haji, a student of the early Monroe School District, eventually attracted the attention of Parry. He tracked down stories, records and memories of the man.

“That was a part of my life for eight years,” he said.

The Japanese-American Haji family moved to Monroe in the 1930s, where they worked, lived and went to school, until being placed in an interment camp during World War II. They were supported and accepted by the community, Parry said, despite rising tensions from the global conflict.

Tom Haji enlisted in 1944, after college. He was killed fighting in the Pacific Ocean, a month after the war had ended.

Parry's pursuit of the young man's story had unintended consequences. One of Tom Haji's sisters, Hiroko, was a valedictorian at the local high school. She reached out to the organization and asked Parry to meet up with her in Olympia. He made the long trip.

Surprisingly, another sister answered the door. They spoke for some time and, eventually, hers and an equivalent donation from another community member covered the museum's mortgage, which volunteers had been paying off bit by bit — even fundraising through bake sales, Bee said.

The museum and historical society has seen some tough times, Boyes said. Committed volunteers always managed to make it through, he said.

Early on members focused on preserving the oral histories of Monroe, Bee said. Some copies, such as the ones stored on cassette tapes, are included in a library of scrapbooks, medical records and family histories. The room is usually locked, and the public must ask staff for access.

Another room holds delicate items and those that haven't been catalogued yet, which volunteers are getting help with now from interns. Bee said inspiring an interest in the younger generations is important to ensure the extensive collection will be safeguarded and available in the future. 

Parry's efforts caught the eye of just such a person, Mario Vega, who has been looking even more into Tom Haji's story for nearly five years now. The college graduate presented his findings this spring at a public event hosted at the museum.

Parry said people who work to preserve history the way Monroe's volunteers have are likely to have a vested interest in the area. Vega is said to have seen some of Tom Haji in himself.

Other volunteers have learned hard lessons on their own, and hope to spare those coming after, Parry said. Some have lived through the ups and downs themselves.

“It's like a family growing up,” he said. “They change and evolve.”

Photos by Kelly Sullivan: Volunteer Chris Bee tours the Monroe Historical Society museum on Monday, July 23.Merv Boyes talks with other Monroe Historical Society volunteers in the organization's museum on Monday, July 23.


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