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The "Keeper" of Family History: An Interview with Author Joy Neal Kidney (Part 1)

Someone must take on the task of preserving a family's history. For the Wilson family, the person who stepped forward to assume that role was Joy Neal Kidney.

I can't remember if I first read one of her blog posts or if she read one of mine first, but we connected and began following each other's writing projects. Since that initial connection, she has been a great encouragement to my own writing efforts. I think many of my readers could also benefit from her thoughts on writing and the preservation of history, especially one's family heritage.


Joy is the author of two books, Leora’s Letters: The Story of Love and Loss for an Iowa Family During

World War II and Leora’s Dexter Stories: The Scarcity Years of the Great Depression, and she is working on a third. All of these are just part of her efforts to preserve her family's history, but you don't need to know the family to enjoy and appreciate her writing. The family was a microcosm of that entire generation. I recently interviewed her about the many irons she has in the fire to further that goal.


DLP: Tell us a little about yourself. Who is Joy Neal Kidney?


Kidney: I was born two days before D-Day to an Iowa farmer and an Iowa waitress who lost three of her five brothers during World War II. I spent my childhood in an Iowa farmhouse with a front porch. Now I live with my husband, a Vietnam veteran, in a suburban house with a front porch.


I disliked history until after college, then I met someone who'd just received copies of her ancestor's Civil War papers. That set my trajectory to what I'm up to today. I enjoyed genealogy, self-publishing copies of what I'd learned for relatives.


I'm the keeper of family stories, letters, photos. A small brown grosgrain purse, an aqua formal gown with ruffles from 1943, Dad's USAAF officer's hat, pilots' logbooks. Combat records, casualty reports, terrible telegrams, and Purple Hearts.


DLP: How and when did you get started writing? What was the motivating force behind your getting started?


Kidney: I was class reporter in 6th grade, and my favorite office in any club was secretary. I loved having pen pals, including Grandma Leora.


I didn't start writing seriously, however, until I realized that the Wilson family's World War II history would be lost unless I kept it alive. I began reading how-to books, attending the Summer Writing Festival at the University of Iowa several summers, writing conferences, sending stories to the Des Moines Register, etc. These things all led to my working on Leora's stories.


DLP: What is the greatest reward or satisfaction you've gained from your writing?


Kidney: Two things. First, ensuring that the Wilson family sacrifice during World War II is not forgotten. Even people who lived in the area knew nothing about them, and I wanted to change that. And second, making connections. Thanks to social media, Leora's stories have reached across the nation, even overseas. Although I'm mostly house-bound now, I've gotten to know other writers and their compelling websites and books. Our American Stories radio broadcasts (and podcasts) have also been a godsend in the same way.


DLP: Speaking of Our American Stories, how did you become involved with that national radio program?


Kidney: Just over three years ago, WHO radio in Des Moines advertised for a new program hosted by Lee Habeeb that featured stories without politics. I was hooked the first week. They said that if you had a story to tell, "send a paragraph and a picture." So I did. And they wanted me to record the story!

My first story for them was the World War II story about the Wilson family. Five of the sons enlisted for the war, but only two came back. But then Our American Stories asked for another story. Their producer, Montie Montgomery, has been so encouraging and easy to work with, and I've now done a dozen stories for them. And I've made winsome connections with other storytellers as well.


DLP: And, I might add, you've introduced several other writers, including me, to Our American Stories and encouraged us to submit our own stories for broadcast. I suspect that it is in part because of your enthusiasm for the program and the preservation of history that won you the double distinctions of winning in 2021 the first Great American Storyteller Award given by Our American Stories and WHO Newsradio 1040 and having the annual award named for you, the Joy Neal Kidney Award. Great honors indeed!


There is much more to my conversation with Joy Neal Kidney. Unfortunately, we must interrupt it here. But watch for next week's blog post, when we will continue the discussion.


Meanwhile, you can learn more about Joy and her books at https://joynealkidney.com. You can also hear her contributions to Our American Stories at https://www.ouramericanstories.com/search?query=Joy%20Neal%20Kidney. Then watch for the next installment of my interview with the "keeper" of family history, Joy Neal Kidney, next week.



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