Charged with the task of summarizing the lives of J. Hurley and Roberta Roland Hagood in a few words suitable for print publication and appropriate for posterity, my thoughts go not to their final days on this earth, but back to when we first met.
Upon reflection, I realize that when we first met in the mid 1970s, they were roughly the age I am today. Hurley retired from the Boy Scouts of America, and Roberta from a career as a placement officer for Chapman College in Orange, Calif. They moved back to their hometown to spend their retirement years, uncertain as to what they would do to fill their newly idle hours.
A committee had been formed to facilitate the publishing of a Bicentennial History Book. Hurley and Roberta volunteered to the write the book. But as Roberta would often tell the story, the committee was skeptical of their offer. The two would-be writers set out to prove their worthiness to the committee members, and were ultimately granted the privilege of compiling Hannibal’s history into “The Story of Hannibal.”
Hurley and Roberta then set out to index all of Hannibal’s historic newspapers. They compiled a system of index card cataloguing. They identified important categories in the city’s past … churches, buildings, industries, people … and when they found a newspaper article pertinent to a topic, they wrote the date and page number down on a card in the alphabetized collection. Then they commenced writing, in chronological order, the Story of Hannibal.
They did so without compensation. In the end, they purchased a few copies of the book, published by Standard Printing, as a reserve. When Jimmy Carter came to Hannibal via the Delta Queen in the 1980s, they had two extra copies left. They gave one to the president, and the other to me.
That writing project, highly respected for its historical accuracy, was just the start of their post-retirement historic research. They wrote many stories that were published in the Courier-Post, and they compiled a whole series of history books and pamphlets. Each is a treasure in itself.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, I was writing weekly history stories for the Courier-Post, and they were writing more in-depth stories that the newspaper printed on occasion. They granted me access to their index cards, and they offered up story suggestions.
If I was a little slow to respond to a suggestion, Hurley and Roberta would stop by the newspaper office and pick me up for one of our memorable field trips.
• We walked along the creek bed at Spalding, retracing the steps of early settlers – and Roberta’s relations - who visited Spalding Springs Resort.
• We visited Bear Creek Baptist Church just west of Hannibal, where I took incredible pictures before vandals set fire to the historic building.
• Then there was a house on U.S. 36 between Hannibal and Monroe City that was shaped as an octagon. Before it was torn down for highway construction, we visited the house, thus recording its history.
Hurley and Roberta truly worked as a team, deciding what topics to research, writing together, proofing each others work and facilitating publication. Hurley was a jokester and Roberta was more studious. Two lessons they taught me still stand out in my mind:
• Roberta taught me to make sure that every history fact I publish is correct, because if you make an error, people will see that error in the future and keep quoting it. Therefore, an error can become a fact.
• Hurley taught me the importance of wearing suspenders when researching. He was at the Hannibal Free Public Library, putting a bound volume of newspapers back on the shelf. As he reached up, his pants fell to the floor. From then on, he wore suspenders.
Roberta wore out an electric typewriter with all of her writing. In the early-1990s, I introduced Hurley to a word processor, which allowed him to save stories on a disk, make changes and corrections, and then reprint without retyping. He bought one just like they one I already had, so when he got tripped up by this new technology, he would dial my number and cry, “Help.”
Hurley and Roberta did all their work the old-fashioned way. They went to the source and transcribed the information. No computer. No internet. No email. No Tweets or Facebook or texts.
These two individuals did more for recording Hannibal’s history than anyone before, or after, could ever do. They recognized what was important, and saw to it that the information was preserved. And it all began after they retired and moved back to Hannibal.
Hurley was called home in 2002, and Roberta followed in March of 2014. They are back together now, at peace knowing that they made a lasting contribution with their combined work, and many friends along the way. They, just like the history stories they wrote, will be remembered.