It was back in the early 1970s that Ralph Jensen began making daily notes about his - and his family's - life.
"I was working in Milwaukee at the time and giving one of my co-workers a ride to work," said the Racine resident. "I used calendar books to keep track of how many times he rode with me and eventually I started adding little things that happened each day."
Jensen, who turns 85 this month, has been making such life notes ever since.
"I try to write something down every day, even if its just about places we go to eat," he said. "It comes in handy when someone asks ‘Do you remember when we did this?' I tell them ‘Let me check my book.' "
Jensen's calendar books also proved useful when he decided to publish a family memoir titled "My Memories: A Brief History of the R.L. Jensen Family, 1800 to Present." The 200-page, hardcover story and photo book - which was created through an online publishing site, blurb.com - was a family project involving Jensen's wife Carol (Kluge) and their four grown children - Mark, Dale, Peggy and Heidi. And while it includes stories and information that might be of interest to people who grew up in Racine County and/or lived through World War II, it is meant to be a personal, family memoir.
"I wanted to tell the Jensen family story, from the time they came here in 1888 to the present," said Ralph. "I talk to so many people who don't know their family history and seem to have no knowledge of who their grandparents were. I wanted to put some of the history that I know down in writing so that another generation from now, people would know what went on in our family."
Much of the Jensen family history had been passed down through stories told to Ralph by his parents and grandparents, who came to the U.S. from Denmark, and from Ralph to his children. Included in the book are tales ranging from some of the earliest Jensen family Christmas celebrations to Ralph's service with the Army Air Corps Cadets, his and Carol's time running a hobby shop/photo finishing business in Lake Geneva, and the parade of classic Mustang cars that Ralph refurbished as one of his many hobbies.
"My Dad's a story teller and he has amazing recall for things that happened back as far as the 1930s," said Mark Jensen, who now lives in Minnesota. "It seemed a shame to not have those stories captured somewhere."
Capturing the stories into book form was an iterative process, Mark said, in which he and his family developed ideas about how the information should be organized and arranged as they went along. The two-year project involved Ralph learning to use a laptop computer; family members digging through lots of old photos; and everyone pitching in to help with typing, editing, proof reading and more.
"It was a learning process," said Ralph, who spent much of his career in the printing business. If there is one piece of advice he has for people wanting to do something similar, it would be to start with an outline, he said.
Another challenge Ralph faced in writing the book was finding people still around who could corroborate his stories. He may not be able to substantiate all of the information, he said, but he did his best to accurately record the stories his parents and grandparents told him. And when he wasn't sure about something, he said so.
The end result is a lovely keepsake that Ralph and Carol gave copies of to members of their family as gifts. The cost of producing "My Memories" came out to between $60 and $70 a copy, according to Mark's wife, Elinor, who was also part of the production.
"My Memories" isn't perfect - "Seven of us proof read it and things still slipped through," Ralph said.
Yet it serves its purpose of preserving family history, traditions and stories that will bring smiles to faces and knowledge to generations of Jensens yet to come (Ralph and Carol have four grandchildren and three great grandchildren with another on the way).
The book is something Heidi Jensen says she will always treasure.
"It's not just a book," Heidi said. "It is an important part of my father's family history. I'm going to keep it in a special spot, so that I always know where it is and I hope that the grandchildren and even great grandchildren will some day have the same feeling about it."
"My Memories" may also have company on that special shelf some day. Mark Jensen says he'd like to add to the family book line with a second edition. It is something he's been thinking about for some time, although he hadn't yet shared his idea with his family.
"About 10 years ago, I started collecting notes about different things I recalled, and putting family information together in one place," he said.
While there are a lot of great stories in his father's book, there are also things Mark says he remembers that aren't in the first edition. He said he may choose a different format this time (the blurb.com
site is more geared toward photo books than text), but his goal - like his father's - is to record family memories and history for generations to come.
"This may be something we continue over a long period of time," he said.
Ralph, meanwhile, is glad to have his family memories preserved.
"It was a means of getting rid of some of the cobwebs in my mind," he said. "And it gave me a chance to elaborate more."