Life stories live on: South Jeffco company captures memories and emotions on keepsake DVDs

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By AJ Vicens

Several years ago, as her father battled leukemia, Bradie Walls thought about all the memories that could die with him.

So Walls sat her father down and captured the stories he had to tell on video.

"As he started talking, the memories became more intense," Walls said. Several weeks later, her father passed away, and the stories he shared have become some of her most cherished possessions, preserving not only the stories she heard over and over as she was growing up, but the subtle things about the way her father told the tales: small gestures, mannerisms and nuances that defined his personality and his beloved quirks.

That experience inspired Walls to launch My Dad's Hat in September 2005, a company she runs out of her South Jeffco home. Walls interviews a person on video, blends the footage with old black-and-white photos, newer photos and music, and produces a DVD that the person’s family will treasure.

In the years since Wall launched the company, she's worked with many people and contracted with several large assisted-living providers to produce similar packages for their residents. The company gets its name from an old straw hat that her father wore as he did chores around the house, a hat that sits in her office to this day.

"I truly believe I'm giving back a gift," Walls said, sitting in her home office. "And I truly get attached to them. I'm providing a gift back to them that will go on and on and on through technology."

Walls said that many of the people she's contracted to produce life stories on wonder what the big deal is.

"‘Why would someone want to hear my story?’" Walls said many people ask. "We need to educate them, empower them that what they have to say is important. It's just not their history; it's everyone's."

She said World War II veterans are dying every day, and the stories they have to tell are dying with them. But veterans are not the only ones with interesting stories to tell, Walls added, noting that everybody has a life story, and with the right questions, that story will touch people's lives.

Walls said a full-length life story on DVD — usually between 45 and 60 minutes long — takes her about 40 hours of solid work. She charges anywhere from a couple hundred dollars to several thousand.

Walls meets with the subject — typically an older person, but not always — for "extremely confidential" interviews that last anywhere from a half-hour to about two hours. She'll ask them questions designed to spur memories by having the person remember smells, sounds and long-forgotten sights, helping them recall things they perhaps haven't thought about in half a century. Walls notes that some of her clients — often residents of area nursing homes or retirement communities — have remembered back to when they were 4 or 5 years old.

The key, Walls said, is to be patient, let them talk without interruption, and let them remember.

"I don't think we've honored giving them time to talk," Walls said.

As families go through the process with Walls of producing the life stories of a parent or grandparent, it can become emotional and difficult, but Walls said she tries to remind them that they're preserving memories for posterity.

"Look at what you've got from them," Walls said she tells the families. "Families start to feel the mortality of their parent, but they know they need to do something before it's too late."

Families can be involved in the process as much or as little as they want to be, but Walls, a former producer for Channel 4 News, has the experience to put together a professional product. Although the process can take a long time, with many hours sitting before her two computers going over and over film and music and scanning photos and slides, Walls said she never cuts corners.

"I would never sacrifice the compassion it needs to be done with," Walls said. "You can't define how emotional and personal this work is. There has to be compassion, and there has to be integrity."

Walls acknowledged that at times her emotions get wrapped up in her projects, and that some things "break her heart." As she goes over and over interviews, and listens to the stories, her heartstrings are pulled.

"It's tough, but I have to remember it's important work," Walls said.

Contact AJ Vicens at aj@evergreenco.com, and check www.columbinecourier.com for breaking news and updates.

Take a closer look at this South Jeffco company at www.mydadshat.com, where Walls' work can be seen in greater detail.