Education

Stories of ‘mystery grandfather’ led stay-at-home mom to pursue degree in history

Pursuing historical perspective

The Belleville News-Democrat's Student of the Week is SIUE history major Angela Little, who is pursuing a history degree and working on historical research with the Madison County Historical Archive Project.
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The Belleville News-Democrat's Student of the Week is SIUE history major Angela Little, who is pursuing a history degree and working on historical research with the Madison County Historical Archive Project.

Angela Little grew up hearing stories about her family’s history, especially the “mystery grandfather.”

This mystery man supposedly died when Little’s grandmother was pregnant, allegedly while falling in front of a train. But when Little began to do her own genealogy research, she discovered he was a French-Canadian named Pierre who actually died of an epileptic attack, when he had a convulsion while driving a wagon.

Little’s fascination with historical research began with her own family’s history and the stories she heard from her father. But soon she discovered that she had just as much interest in the stories that make up a rich tapestry of local history in the towns of the metro-east. She was a stay-at-home mom, but the youngest children had started school, and Little decided it was time to pursue her degree.

Now 39, Little is a nontraditional history major at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and a research assistant in the history department. Her primary focus has been local history, the stories of real people that built the communities of the metro-east.

“They’re both people-based, but I find local history to be more the stories of everyday people,” she said. “It’s not just who was the mayor of the town or made this important decision in the grander scheme of things. It was who was the worker in the coal mine, who ran the family at the house, who made this tiny betterment to their neighborhood that actually made a big difference. They may not have had an article written about them in the newspaper. I like those personal stories of the everyday person, but I also like seeing them in the bigger context.”

Little is currently a research assistant working with the Madison County Historical Archive, a project to collect stories and artifacts of local history in an online archive that is a cooperative venture between the regional superintendent of schools, SIUE and other organizations, including private historians.

No matter how old you are, even if you’re 70, you will not be the oldest person in the class.

Angela Little, nontraditional student at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville

There’s definitely a difference between the oral histories each generation tells to the next, and the realities recorded in historical documents, Little said.

“I think stories get confused as they get passed down. One person forgets a detail, and then it is retold without a detail, and it’s like a game of telephone,” she said. “But the stories definitely have truth. They are the basis for the research; they set me on their path. They have to have truth in them, for you to go anywhere with them. But details are sometimes wrong, or surprises are found. Or sometimes they go nowhere, or you’ll never find out if it’s true.”

As she pursues her studies, Little has plenty to keep her busy. Her husband must often travel for his job, and she has three boys at home. Even so, she is planning to go for her master’s degree and eventually to seek work in archival research or museum studies.

It was intimidating to go back to college as a nontraditional student, she said, but people shouldn’t let fears stop them from pursuing higher education. As long as they’re committed to what they’re doing, they should absolutely do it, she said.

“It can be hard, so take your time, ask questions,” she said. “No matter how old you are, even if you’re 70, you will not be the oldest person in the class. That’s something I was nervous about ... but everybody’s been very nice here.”

Elizabeth Donald: 618-239-2507, @BNDedonald

Meet Angela Little

  • Age: 39
  • School: Southern Illinois University Edwardsville
  • Grade: Junior
  • Town: Belleville
  • High School: Graduate of Belleville West High School
  • Family: Husband Dan Little, sons Nathan, Devin and Aiden
  • Major: History
  • Favorite Class: “Careers in history is a class I’m taking right now, and it’s proved to be invaluable... I didn’t think I’d enjoy archival work, but now it sounds like it’s exactly what I’d like to do.”
  • Pastimes: “Genealogy, and having fun with my kids. We go to science centers and museums.”
  • Future plans: Graduate school, and eventually archival and museum work
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