Biography project pairs students and elders

Mystic — Thirteen-year-old Casey Hurtgen of Madison, a seventh grader at Pine Point School in Stonington, couldn't wait to share his story Tuesday with 89-year-old Carol "Poody" Maynard at StoneRidge Senior Living Community.

In what has become a 22-year tradition at StoneRidge, and which goes back even further at Pine Point, Casey had arrived shortly after lunch to read his biography of Maynard, which included the recounting of how she got her unusual nickname. Casey was one of 17 students involved in the annual biography project.

"She tells lots of fun stories," Casey said enthusiastically.

"When she was only two years old, she was singing a song, and in the song, there was a woman named Suzy," read Casey's story. "Whenever she would say the name, she would pronounce it Poody."

It was a nickname Maynard could never rid herself of, even when she went off to Vassar College in the 1940s.

Casey adorned the cover of his biography with a pair of ice skates and a tennis racket, reflecting two of Maynard's interests. It also included the Vassar logo.

The story itself recounted one time that Maynard as a child tried to push the family cook into the oven as she was baking, as well as a tragic accident involving a beloved family dachshund.

Dave Smith, an English teacher at Pine Point for the past four decades, said the tradition of seventh-grade students being involved in a biography project probably goes back three decades and once involved seniors at The Elms in Westerly, Academy Point in Mystic and the Groton Senior Center, among other facilities. It's a service and learning project, he said, that is as good for the seniors as it is for the kids.

"We feel it could be passed down through the generations," he said. "You're leaving a legacy."

In addition to being a graded English assignment, the biography is a history lesson as well, including sometimes surprising stories about the Depression and World War II. A few years back, one student elicited a memory from a woman who grew up in Germany and witnessed brutality against Jewish citizens, he said.

"These kids get very close with their partners," Smith said. "We have students who have actually developed a relationship with the residents. They have been invited to plays, and (kids) go to funerals."

Students spend once a week over a six-week period interviewing residents for the biography project. Smith helps them develop good, open-ended questions and has them work on multiple drafts.

"They try to key on the things that are most important," he said.

Kathleen Dess, executive director of StoneRidge, said she finds the bios are a meaningful experience for residents and students alike.

"We don't ask our grandparents about their lives," she said.

"I tell the kids someday somebody is going to be rummaging in an attic and they're going to see your biography," Smith added.

"It's a lot of fun," said StoneRidge resident Olive Tamm, who has now been involved in five bio projects, this one with Amaya Butler of North Stonington. "The best part is talking with young people. They are very impressive."

l.howard@theday.com

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