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Cal U students work with societies on videos of notewothy events

Joe Napsha
| Saturday, Jan. 4, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Rachel Fawley (left) of LaBelle, Fayette County, and Corrine Dowlin of Ohioville, Beaver County, produced a video on the tragic Donora smog of 1948.
California Area Historical Society
Rachel Fawley (left) of LaBelle, Fayette County, and Corrine Dowlin of Ohioville, Beaver County, produced a video on the tragic Donora smog of 1948.
California University of Pennsylvania students (from left) Jacqui Peddicorn, Roman Toth and Andrew Sontag produced a video to promote the California Area Historical Society focusing on the historic Gallagher House on Wood Street.
California Area Historical Society
California University of Pennsylvania students (from left) Jacqui Peddicorn, Roman Toth and Andrew Sontag produced a video to promote the California Area Historical Society focusing on the historic Gallagher House on Wood Street.

Even though Emily Ritchie grew up in Rostraver Township, she had never heard of Brownsville's historic Nemacolin Castle until she began working on a digital storytelling video this fall as a freshman at California University of Pennsylvania.

“I never knew there was a castle in Brownsville,” Ritchie, a 2013 graduate of Belle Vernon Area High School, said during the recent premiere of the video at the McKeesport Regional History & Heritage Center.

Ritchie was joined by 13 other Cal U honors students who were divided into five teams to work with historical societies in Brownsville, California, Donora, Dormont and McKeesport in producing short videos about the historical groups in those towns, as well as a historical artifact or noteworthy event in those communities. The students selected the towns they wanted to feature in their videos.

The Cal U students' digital storytelling project, a joint initiative of the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh and Cal U's honors program, has the potential for a greater impact than just highlighting the history of five communities in Western Pennsylvania, said Robert O. Stakeley, the educator and manager of the history center's affiliates program.

Using technology can help “to bring these students to these (historic) sites,” Stakeley said.

“This can be a solution to all of the history center affiliates' challenge of getting young people interested and involved in local history,” said Stakeley, who oversees an affiliates program and works with 125 regional historical societies and organizations dedicated to preserving history.

Former Brownsville mayor Norma Ryan, who is treasurer of the Brownsville Area Revitalization Corp., which assisted Cal U students in making their two-minute video, agreed that it can help attract tourists to the community.

“The more we work with the (Senator) John Heinz History Center, the more likely we will become a designation point for visitors,” Ryan said.

The digital storytelling project encouraged “collaboration with community members at local HCAP (History Center Affiliates Program) sites,” said Christina Fisanick, Cal U associate professor of English, who worked with Gary J. DeLorenzo, associate professor of computer information systems, on the project.

The storytelling project also builds on an already-strong relationship between the Heinz History Center and Cal U, Fisanick said.

Mary Beth Graf, president of California Area Historical Society, was not only pleased with the two-minute video about the town's historical society, but also by the students' desire to learn about the town's history.

“I get real happy when young people come into our (California Area) historical society,” said Graf, who heads the historical society, which is housed in the Gallagher House on Wood Street.

“As soon as we did the first video, I thought this was fun,” said Andrew Sontag, who produced the California video with Jacqui Peddicorn and Roman Toth. DeLorenzo said they would like to expand on what was a pilot project.

“We would love to make them do not only five, but six, seven or eight,” DeLorenzo said.

Ritchie, who is studying to be a teacher of students in grades 4 to 8, said she and fellow students Laura Owens and Ali Steiner selected Brownsville because it has the historic castle.

The students researched information about the Nemacolin Castle and used historic photos backed by narration to explain the features of the 22-room castle and its significance.

“I think they did a great job. They paid attention to the information given to them. That's (Nemacolin Castle) Brownsville's claim to fame,” Ryan said.

Donora smog

Two other Cal U students, Rachel Fawley of LaBelle and Corrine Dowlin of Ohioville, Beaver County, produced a powerful four-minute video on the industrial smog that blanketed Donora in late October 1948, killing 21 people and drawing attention to problem of air pollution.

Dowlin's haunting narration is complemented by photos of the mills along the Monongahela River belching smoke, of a darkened street in Donora, someone being wheeled in a gurney, victims lying in oxygen tents, a woman walking the street with a mask covering her mouth, a cemetery procession and newspaper headlines detailing the tragedy.

“We felt it was the most powerful (topic). It's the perfect idea,” Dowlin said.

Representatives from the Donora Historical Society and Smog Museum, praised the video.

“We pride ourselves on being an education facility,” said Brian Charlton, curator of the smog museum. The video will help in that effort by using it in presentations.

“I think that's going to be a real treasure for us. Our motto is, ‘Clean Air Started in Donora.' It's a shame to be proud of something so tragic,” he said

The process of making these stories teaches the students skills – writing, editing, storytelling, interviewing and many more – that they will use the rest of their lives, Fisanick said.

All 10 of the student videos are completed, but not all have been posted to the Honors Program page of the California University website, Fisanick said.

An introductory video on California and feature video on Brownsville, as well as both the introductory and feature videos on Donora, are available for viewing on the Honors Program page of California University's website.

Joe Napsha is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-5252 or

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