Buster Farha and the Kentucky Derby

2 May 2009 is Kentucky Derby Day–and an awesome one it was.  Mine That Bird–one of the least expensive horses, ridden by one of the best and most highly paid jockeys, entered for the first time in the Derby at 50-1, and he won! By 20 lengths!  A second in Derby history.

One of the most interesting oral interviews I ever had was with Mr. Stanley “Buster” Farha.  He managed the historic Glen Ferris Inn on the Kanawa River in Fayette County, West Virginia, from 1970 to 1989.

And he was regular at the Kentucky Derby for so many years running, that everyone at the track knew him.  My first interview with him was in mid-May, just after he returned from the Derby.  He could hardly wait to see me.  As he had arrived at the track,  a special welcome sign greeted everyone, with his name in big, brilliant neon lights.

Now I was hired to interview him as part of a family history for a large Lebanese family.  The members of the family were scattered across the United States.  And they wanted details about the family, in general, and the young men fresh from Lebanon, in particular, that he had personally launched into American life.

The Lebanese are super family-oriented.  They help each other and support their own young people so they can get the very best college education available.  They send their extra money back to Lebanon so other family members can come to this country.  And Buster was part of that culture.  He found jobs and provided room and board for two of the top heart and lung surgeons in the United States, among others he championed.

As skilled and experienced an interviewer as I am, I could not persuade him to tell me about the family he loved and helped.  All he could talk about was the Kentucky Derby and the special recognition he had received from the people who inhabited that other world he also loved.

Oral interviews are best when the subject is allowed to tell what they are passionately involved in.  Questions, however up-front they are, can easily manipulate the person.  And I try very hard not to lead the conversation–just to suggest the direction and interest of the family.

But, he would have none of it.  He described the horses.  He told me about the women’s hats.  He recited his conversations with the jockeys and the trainers.  And he  related every single second of his time in the Winner’s Circle as a special VIP.

So I took the notes and let him re-live the glory he had just experienced. It was a great interview.  And one I will never forget.

A few years later, I went to Cooperstown NY to research occupations. One afternoon, I ended my day early to take in the baseball haunts. This included a Major League exhibit in a local sports bar.  Through a very large arch, I noticed that the bar had a huge television screen along the whole wall.

The place was packed.  And the Kentucky Derby was announced by trumpet and music and noise.  So I joined the fun.  The horses were not seen at a distance–they were close-up in all their trappings and matching livery.

I had never seen a  horse race that large before.  It held me spellbound. Pegasus was the winner.  And suddenly, I knew the excitement that enticed Buster Farha back year after year until he held the record as an unrelated  participant.  Your favorite genealogist, Arlene Eakle  http://www.arleneeakle.com

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