Personal Historian—Paula Slavens
Paula Slavens, started Special Editions Customized Biographies in 2000 with her late husband, Rick Slavens. They created and published graphically-rich books, custom design projects, and works of art for individuals, families, businesses, and communities.
"Preserving history is my livelihood and passion, born out of the desire to do work that enhances people’s lives and provides keepsakes for generations," says Paula. After years devoted to the high tech industry and corporate arena, the Slavens team pooled their collective skills to devote their lives to preserving the past through storytelling, enhanced with historical and genealogical research.
The Slavens team collaborated with professionals, who specialize in transcription, video services, proofreading and editing. Today, Paula also employs genealogical researchers to help with the services once provided by Rick. "Employing the best skills from our resource team, provides a better quality product for our clients," says Paula.
Paula’s specialty is interviewing, writing, graphic design, business management and strategic planning. Business associates whose contributions make up her extended team include transcriptionists, researchers and
editors, as well as service providers for print production inhouse and in the community.
Members of (past and present):
• Association of Personal Historians
• Association of Professional Genealogist
• Genealogical Forum of Oregon
• Genealogical Society of Washington County, Oregon
• National Genealogical Society
• Northwest Book Publishers Association
• Oregon Historical Cemeteries Association
• Oregon Historical Society
• Oral History Association
• Washington County Historical Society
Let me Introduce Myself. My name is Paula Slavens, an unusual name that I inherited from my husband. I now use his response to correct people who mispronounce it: That’s…sl-A-vens…like hard work, no pay… SLAVE-ns.
The Unnamed Child from Snohomish
Names are very interesting to me. My mother christened me at birth as Paula Marguerite Bartel, but no one ever wrote it on the birth certificate. A picture of Valley General Hospital identifies the location. Signatures of the doctor, my mother and a witness are clearly written with a blue-ink fountain pen. My little footprint is even there next to Mom’s thumbprint. But the baby’s name?—just a void—a big, blank space.
When preparing for confirmation at our community church, my pastor said a non-named birth certificate isn’t acceptable. He needed proof of my existence with a record showing the correct spelling of my middle name. When I asked my folks how they intended to spell it, neither of them knew for sure. My mother liked the name from a person she once knew, but never saw it spelled.
Maybe that solved the mystery. As the fourth daughter, when my father had been praying for sons, you might think I would have developed a complex as a non-named entity. Instead I did research. The Princess Marguerite is a ship that sails from Seattle to Victoria, B.C. So at age fifteen, I sat at our humble little farmhouse desk, took pen in hand and officially named myself after a cruise ship.
Becoming a member of the Association of Personal Historians, Incorporated
I joined APH in July 2000, in time for the NW Regional meeting. There I met Julie Zander who bubbled over with enthusiasm about the annual conference held in Chicago. She made APH sound so intriguing that I decided to get involved. I got to that NW Regional meeting purely by synergies that seemed to come from a higher power. Maybe it even involved a little help from my dad. It certainly resulted from a year of tragedies—tough times that opened my eyes to the fragility of life and the value of my new career choice.
Our tragic year started in the spring 1999, shortly after I left the corporate world and started my own graphics design business. Just when things started to pick up, my mother’s physician diagnosed breast cancer. I put my business on hold to help her and my father, who at age eighty-four seemed more helpless than ever. As a farmer, Dad required a lot of domestic maintenance. In his vision of world order, men didn’t do housework and old age made him even more demanding. So care for my mother also included care for my father. After a long, three-week stay, I agonized about leaving because they still needed help. But I knew the time had come to take care of myself. A biopsy confirmed uterine cancer, involving surgery and daily radiation treatments that kept me bedridden all summer and late into the fall. Two days after my last radiation treatment, my husband drove me up to the farm. The last time I had made that five-hour excursion was as a caretaker. Now it was to say goodbye. Colon cancer plagued my father’s family. I arrived on Thursday. He died on Sunday.
At my father’s memorial service, each of his six children wrote letters, read by Dad’s pastor and friend. “Dear Dad”, they all began, each telling what we wanted to say at this time of endings and new beginnings.
Writing those letters required a lot of soul searching. Life with Dad conjured up memories of some good times, but the bad times cast some very deep shadows. Dad wasn’t always the nicest person on earth, but he taught us how to work hard and be responsible people. Writing these final words challenged memories and feelings as we reflected on our love, but also remembered the pain—a lifetime of conflicting emotions summed up in one final letter.
A new career
Those letters became the foundation for a collective memorial; each one a treasure that reflected a different perspective of growing up on the farm. My mother asked me to gather those gems and make a book out of them—a chore made possible because years earlier my husband Rick and I had captured Dad’s stories on video and audiotapes. Armed with this oral history, family photos, drawings and other memorabilia, I created a book—a chronicle from birth to death. It evolved as a catharsis for me, helping with the healing process; and, it also planted a seed for my new career.
I distributed the Fred Bartel memorial books to family and friends at Christmas and shared it with fellow genealogists at our January meeting in Washington County. Certified genealogist Connie Lenzen, approached me afterwards, explaining that she was commissioning a workshop brochure in conjunction with the Portland Art Museum and would like my help. After a year of dealing with cancer, designing the brochure proved to be a welcomed diversion. It also led to the fortuitous meeting of APH member, Joella Werlin, who encouraged me to join this outstanding organization that helps people develop memoir-writing businesses. APH opened the door as a perfect match for my new career interests. Since then, I have written, designed and published projects ranging from personal memoirs to family and corporate book projects, as well as other business-oriented graphic design products. In addition to our own book projects, Rick and I provide design and publishing services for other APH members.
My formal education included a BA degree with a major in art, which I shelved for a long, long time. I moved instead into the higher-paying, high-tech world in Oregon’s silicon forest area. It provided the foundation for a diverse range of careers and additional education, starting with engineering disciplines and coming full circle to the more creative field of marketing communications. I felt most fulfilled when I could combine marketing communications, business analysis and graphic design into one project; but I still felt unfulfilled. I wanted to make a difference in people lives. I wanted to do something of lasting value.
After working a 24-hour day to complete a hospital newsletter destined for 300,000 households, Rick challenged, “Why are you killing yourself for junk mail?”
Calling my efforts “junk mail” seemed like undeserving, hurtful words, especially when design critics had honored it with a national award. His words stung… but they were true. No matter how beautiful the product, it remained time-dated material that would eventually end up in the recycle bin.
My next career goal focused on finding an avenue where I could combine my diverse business and educational background, use my communication and design skills, and create great works that made a difference in peoples’ lives.
APH provided the solution
Devoting my life to developing personal histories is the pinnacle of my career. It is a creative endeavor, but it is also one that draws upon my diverse experience in a wide range of disciplines and industries. All those circuitous routes from one industry to another, from one career path to another, culminated with a breadth of understanding that makes it easier to communicate with clients. It doesn’t equip me with credentials in all of life’s disciplines, but it helps me determine the right questions. Even more important is valuing every life and feeling passionate about documenting our stories. We need to share our earned wisdom with future generations. Life is so fleeting, leaving a legacy in words, thoughts and pictures is the greatest gift we have to offer.
My father would have liked to live forever. He fought death, wishing he had more time to fix his mistakes—to ask forgiveness for not being the perfect husband—for not always being a loving father. But time ran out. Through his memorial book, I recorded his thoughts and feelings, providing the words he struggled to say and making sense of some of the challenges his family continued to face.
I feel very blessed to have been able to use dad’s own words and document his story. It proved to be a healing process for me and for others, who have read his book and perhaps now understand him more in death than in life. I also feel a divine sense of reward. The synergies that have unfolded to make this career path a success, seem too uncanny to have happened by pure circumstance. I feel as though Dad is looking down at me helping to keep the doors open so that I may pursue this rewarding endeavor.
Every one of us has a story to tell—a lifetime of learning that we can pass on, wisdom that can only be gained by breathing in life, making mistakes and learning the lessons. The greatest legacy we can give to our family is to share that wisdom.
I am still seeking wisdom as I meet new people and travel to new places documenting stories. But this un-named child from Snohomish, Washington, has definitely found her calling. I am making a difference in people’s lives.
Rick Slavens’ interest in genealogy first sparked as a teenager in 1967 when he joined his aunt in a community education class for fledgling genealogists. Today that ember of enthusiasm has evolved into a passion, with active participation in local, state, and national organizations, as well as a personal history business that he shared with his wife Paula Slavens.
Slavens served as president of the Oregon chapter of the Association of Professional Genealogist (APG) and vice president of the Genealogical Council of Oregon (GCO). He was a lifetime member of the Genealogical Forum of Oregon (GFO), a charter member of the Genealogical Society of Washington County, Oregon, a member of the National Genealogical Society (NGS),as well as other organizations in the United States and Canada.
His love of history and preservation also resulted in a twelve-year position as vice president of the Oregon Historic Cemeteries Association, and as memberships and board positions in several statewide committees.
Armed with thirty-years experience in the high-tech, computer and software industries, Slavens shared his knowledge with fellow genealogists as a consultant and speaker. Adding his trademark humor and wit to official jargon makes even the most technical course material fun and memorable. Some of the courses taught by Slavens included: Beginning Genealogy,Computer Basics for Genealogists, the Internet for Genealogists, and New Technologies for the Genealogist.
On Wednesday evenings, Slavens taught and provided one-on-one support at the LDS stake in West Beaverton. In addition to research, sales, and marketing for the family business, Special Editions Customized Biographies,Slavens also provided consulting services for historical societies and archives.