The private historian | Classic Chicago Magazine


Those newspaper clippings in your shoebox, the vacation photos in the drawer, the memories of a family vacation where four generations came together: Matthew Nickerson, creator of the aptly named The Private Historian, finds the book buried in it. inside these illusory projects of rainy days and personal memories. Using your words and treasures, it creates distinctive books, websites, and videos for your family.

Matt Nickerson.

Nickerson, a journalist, historian and scholar, describes her mission as preserving the accomplishments of her clients and conveying their values. This journey often embarks with the family trees of clients. “I create two kinds of books: memory books and historical sagas,” he explains. “In the memory books, the family tells me the story in their own words. I record them, edit them and organize them heavily, associating them with everything from old dance cards, programs and clippings, and all types of visual stories using many photographs over the years.

He continues, “For historical sagas, I visit libraries, look at old newspaper clippings, research online, and trace your family back to its origins. I chronicle his journey to the New World and tell the story of his rise to America. The result: a saga that places your family’s story within the history of the United States with period photographs, color maps and glossy illustrations. Imagine Ron Chernow Alexandre hamilton or that of Niall Ferguson House of Rothschild, but this book is not sold in bookstores. It’s only for you and your family.

A selection of covers from books created by Nickerson.

Margaret Mary Stoetzel shares her recent work experience with Nickerson: “My mother has put together wonderful scrapbooks from my father’s family, his family, his children and his grandchildren. I wanted to find a way to share them with all of our extended family. Matt used the photos as the basis for the book he wrote for us, which was a combination of family history and memories of my mother. He used several elements to give the book a dimension. He includes candid and formal photos, newspaper articles, love letters, awards and stories, all found in his albums.

“Matt was patient and it was a pleasure to work with him. Our book is a pleasant family story to read and a treasure for generations to come, ”she adds.

Some clients find Nickerson with very specific expectations instead of big sagas, however: “Sometimes I get quite specific requests. A client wanted to know the medical causes of death for each family member.

A graduate in American history from the University of Chicago, Nickerson worked for 25 years as a reporter and editor in five Chicago metro newspapers, most recently on the Tribunebusiness office. While a journalist, he obtained a master’s degree in European history. In 2014, he combined his journalism skills with historical knowledge and became a family and business historian.

When he started in 2016, most of his clients were retired, today half of his clients are mid-career: “Some want to know where their families come from, especially in Eastern Europe. , many borders have been blurred because of the war.

Some of Nickerson’s books take his research even further. One of his creations, Survival and success, recounts a family’s beginnings in Iceland and their incredible accomplishments in America: “The book was about the family of Norm Asbjornson from Tulsa, Oklahoma. Her daughter baked cookies for her every year for her birthday. One year, she wanted to give him something different. Her husband told her that one of her classmates, Matt Nickerson, wrote family stories. So instead of cookies, she gave him a book!

The beginning of Asbjornson’s story.

“The Asbjornsons were my first book and are intriguing because they are Icelandic-American, a very small ethnic group! he shares. “A few thousand people came to the United States after a volcano exploded in Iceland in 1875, including the Asbjornsons. The family moved to Minnesota, where they endured harsh winters, and then in 1913 moved to central Montana, where they suffered from droughts and the Depression.

“Norm took me on a plane to little Winifred, MT, 200 residents, where he grew up. He showed me around and I did some research. Being in central Montana – there are no ski or celebrity ranches, just farmers and small towns – made me realize how rural communities beget self-reliance. There is simply no one to help. When Norm was born in 1935, the city had no electricity. Then his father built a power station and lit the city. Norm said his experiences in a small town helped him learn independence from a young age.

This and the picture above from inside the Asbjornson book.

Nickerson says most customers typically print at least 100 copies of their books, handing them out to friends and family, as well as a cousin or two who come out of the woods and ask for a copy. “Norm sent copies of his family history to the kids who get his college scholarships,” he says.

Many young people choose memory books to honor their elders. But, we couldn’t help but wonder, in the quest to celebrate those who have come before, are many skeletons unearthed from their places deep in family closets? “A few,” Nickerson concedes, although “most people know where the closet was and who was in it.”

Most of the time, however, he finds good news, and even inspiration: “I believe that a family history book inspires future generations – they can look back and see how they came to live. in comfort. “

And discovering these stories begins with genealogy – Nickerson considers a “good friend”. While the names and dates he provides are important to his work, he says what really matters are the flesh and blood stories we attach to them: “I am inspired by every book I write. , by the people who show up in America and get things done. I think of a grandfather, a Russian Jew, who fled the Bolsheviks and landed here, without speaking English. He succeeded in creating a small store which initially prospered but failed during the Depression. He later started a very successful shoe business. I have a lot of stories of people who just don’t give up. I did a business story and found many creative entrepreneurs among my clients.

Despite the internet age we find ourselves in, Nickerson assures us that his customers all want paper books, not digital files, even his former client, the software manager. “Oddly enough,” he shares, “it was an older couple who briefly considered a website!” But it seems the prevailing thirst is for stories that we can touch and feel.

Like any good journalist, Nickerson’s attention is drawn to the stories of the world around him, which means he has yet to touch on the story of his own family. To that he replies, “I guess the grass is always greener on the other side. “

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