September 4, 2020
This week, Re-live it LIVE host Nathan Kafka (‘00C) sat down with Elaine Crepeau (‘68C), Up with People Archivist and editor of Mr. Belk’s memoir: J. Blanton Belk: It’s an unfinished world and it’s still in the making…
Nathan: Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get started with Up with People (UWP)?
Elaine: We were a host family like so many people. In March of 1968, my family hosted Deodat Kwiranga (Tanzania) and Al Ball (Ohio) in Sarasota, Fla. After I saw the show, they told me I should go to the Up with People Festival in Fort Slocum, New York. I told them, “I love the message, but I have no talent.”
One day, I came home very late and mentioned to them that I was working my way through college as a long distance operator for General Telephone (GTE). Two weeks later I got a call from Vincent Vercuski—the director of the festival! He said he heard I was a long-distance operator and they were in desperate need for someone to operate their switchboard. He told me he couldn’t pay me anything, but could give me room and board for six weeks.
Taking a sabbatical from GTE, I decided to go to New York in late June. About three weeks after my arrival, Betty Pensoneau Primeaux and Mary Caughey Colwell, who also lived in staff housing, encouraged me to apply for the national cast. I applied after much persuasion. I was asked to write an article of 250 words about teaching in “a classroom without walls.” Oluf Kongshaug, director of admissions, said, “I want it typed and I want it tomorrow.”
There were only two typewriters at the festival: One belonged to Mr. Belk’s secretary—I wasn’t about to go there!—and the other was at Pace Magazine and TA News. They let me use it from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. that night. I typed my 250 word essay and went to the admissions office the next morning. I handed it Oluf, who looked at it for maybe 30 seconds before he extended his hand and said, “Welcome to Up with People.” He told me much later that he wanted to see how resourceful I was!
Nathan: That’s amazing. It was a different way to tour back then.
Elaine: Oluf told me I’d be traveling with Cast 68B. While I was in one of the long lunch lines at Fort Slocum, Bjorn Ryman, principal of Cast C High School introduced himself. He said he understood I’d been assigned to Cast B and he wanted to invite me to travel as the English literature and history teacher for Cast C. I immediately agreed!
Nathan: As a fellow Cast C alumnus, I think you made the right decision! Now, After UWP, what brought you to the world of libraries that made you the librarian you are today?
Elaine: The first place we traveled to was Sherbrooke, Quebec, where the director of the local university library let our high school students use their classrooms. During the library information tour I kept saying to myself: “I can do this.” ”I had help check out books in both my elementary and junior high school libraries, and when I was a freshman in college, I also worked at my high school library. His explanation was more robust and exciting! Five years later, I earned my master’s degree in library science.
Nathan: As much as things change, they stay the same. My cast also visited Sherbrooke, Quebec about 32 years later.
Elaine: Oh, no kidding!
Nathan. You’ve been a part of many aspects of Mr. Belk’s memoir. How was the process of researching and editing?
Elaine: I really came on board as the researcher in December 2015, after Mr. Belk’s biographer (Penelope Niven) passed away the year prior. At that time, I was doing UWP research at the University of Arizona Special Collections (where the Up with People Archives is housed). So, I have been involved in some capacity since December 2015.
I started to take on more research in 2017. I usually went to the Up with People Archives four days a week and that continued through 2018 and 2019. Someone asked how many hours I had worked on the project—at that point it was 656 hours, in a year and half’s time. It’s been more since then. This past January, I took on the additional job of editing the manuscript, compiling the music permissions, and completing the bibliography. Also, I made sure we met our publication deadlines. Mrs. Belk and I must’ve read the manuscript about 14 times. Sometimes, I went back to the University [of Arizona] to do additional research or contacted someone to verify information.
July 8, 2020 was the deadline for having everything completed, including the photos, content, music permission, endnotes, bibliography, and the index.
Nathan: What was the transition like from librarian to editor?
Elaine: I’m a professional librarian and I always think like one. Mostly, during my 47 year career, I’ve been a cataloging librarian which means that I’m very detailed oriented. However, this was not the first book I’ve helped edit. While working as a librarian in Japan, I helped a friend edit her first three books, so I had some editing experience. Also, when I worked at a public library in California for 16 years—with over 800 local authors in that area, we provided a service for people who were self-publishing. I was in charge of that service and used to help authors with many aspects of their book projects.
Nathan: I’ve received my book and I can tell your level of detail is in there. There are many memoirs published these days without an index and seeing that included is definitely the work of a librarian.
I also heard you traveled to Washington, DC last September to do research at the Library of Congress for the book.
Elaine: That’s correct. I wrote to the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress and I said that I needed more information on Moral Re-Armament (MRA), Sing Out, and Up with People. I ended up having them pull about 40 boxes for me to look through. Luckily, I had some helpers. Fellow alumna Jenn Gifford (‘00C) drove down from Pennsylvania. My friend, Mafe Brooks, College of Communication and Information Development Director at Florida State University happened to be in town and helped as well.
We spent almost three days in the Manuscript Division —freezing!—since they kept the temperature to 55 degrees. We were very successful. In the end, Jenn took around 80-90 photos of documents, some that were used for verification.
Nathan: What other organizations did you reach out to during your research?
Elaine: Several. The Eisenhower Presidential Library was able to verify certain dates for me. I worked with their archivist, Kevin Bailey, who combed through over 4000 presidential phone records and appointment books entries. He verified the famous April 17, 1967 phone call when President Eisenhower told Mr. Belk to incorporate UWP as well as other meeting dates between Mr. Belk and President Eisenhower.
I also reached out to the University of North Carolina, where Mr. Belk was in the V-12 program which trained naval officers during World War II.The archivist sent me information about the program which included the date for his commission. Yale University was contacted about the Ely guest book as well as Drake University for information on Charles Howard. You will see notes in both the Yale and Eisenhower Presidential Library citations that, because of the current pandemic, they were unable to complete the research I needed. I still have outstanding questions for both of them.
If I could not verify information, it’s not in the book. I had to be very sure, because I wanted the book to be as accurate as possible.
Nathan: What is one thing you hope people gain from reading the book?
Elaine: For one, an appreciation of the Sing Out and Up with People programs and how they started—our history is very important and unique for the time. It’s also important for people to learn about Mr. Belk and his family. Some of the stories are very funny. I’m surprised he got past his 16th birthday because of all of his misadventures! It was heartwarming to learn about him as a person–not just inspiring us from the stage or telling us which country we are going to go to, even though we might not have gone there for 25 years!
Nathan: Yes, Mr. Belk has a way to inspire people, even if we didn’t go there for 25 years.
What’s one of the most interesting things you learned from Mr. and Mrs. Belk during this process?
Elaine: I think that, even though I’ve been involved in Up with People in some capacity since 1968, I really feel I learned more about Mr. Belk as a person, and the family as a unit. They banded together, especially Betty, and their daughters. His father was a great influence on him as was his grandfather. You’ll see that theme throughout the book.
Nathan: Since I am the host of the new web series Re-live it Live, and an UWP collector, what are some of the most interesting things you’ve learned about albums/memorabilia during your research for the book?
Elaine: I hadn’t seen a show since 1969 so when I saw a show in early 1972, I felt a very different vibe. I think it could be attributed to the British influence of David Mackay who was working with our songwriters in the early ‘70s. The message was definitely there and the new sound was very effective.
Nathan: Yes, Up with People has definitely evolved over the years. We sound different now than we did back then.
Elaine: The choreography was a little different then, too. We didn’t move on stage very much, maybe only two feet one way or the other way on the risers. I don’t think I could have survived doing the choreography after 1971, when Lynne Morris came on board.
Nathan: You don’t want to dance gumboot, Elaine?
Elaine: (laughing) NO! That was in our show, though! I was in a unique position; I was on staff when I traveled. I was only on stage when they had a hole that needed to be filled on those big stages in Canada or Europe.
Nathan: Elaine, where can people get the book?
Elaine: You can purchase the book at upwithpeople.org/belkbook.
Nathan: I have two copies, and in honor of your hard work as a librarian, I’ll be donating a copy to my local library so that Mr. Belk’s memoir is available locally. I encourage all alumni to do the same. Thank you so much for your time, Elaine!
Elaine: You are welcome Nathan, it’s always a pleasure to talk with you.
Nathan: I hope we get to do it in person soon. Be sure to visit upwithpeople.org/belkbook to order your copy of Mr. Belk’s book, and reliveitlive.com to learn more about the Re-live it Live video series.