Nephew of former Douglas County commissioner preserves family memories

Gary Hilgers, a nephew of former Douglas County Commissioner Bev Bales, started capturing his relative's stories on video almost 10 years ago. "I do it more for them and my family members than for me," he said.

Gary Hilgers has preserved the memories of friends and loved ones both here and gone. Top left, Gary's mother Lillie Helgers of Moorhead; top right, Gary's uncle Bernard Hilgers of Wahpeton; bottom right, Gary's aunt, Bev Bales of Alexandria; bottom right, family friend John Houserman of Edina. Contributed photo

In the last 10 years, Gary Hilgers, 65 — nephew of former Douglas County Commissioner Bev Bales — has preserved up to 20 hours of family stories with just his phone and a list of unique questions.

"I am kind of a sentimentalist, if you will, and have always appreciated where I came from. I have awesome parents, awesome relatives and I just empathize that most people want to be remembered when they are gone. And what better way to do that, to hold onto them than with a video," said Hilgers. "I am hoping that my grandkids will see these videos of their long-lost relatives and hear their stories first hand."

Since the 1980s, Hilgers has always been interested in capturing moments on video, and about 10 years ago, he decided to start preserving the stories of his family.

As he watched his aunts, uncles and parents get older, Hilgers realized his time with them was dwindling, so he sought to protect their stories and preserve their memories.


"I’m glad that someone is asking, so we get to know our ancestors; Something I wish we would have done," said Bales while reflecting on her interview.

The two of them dove into her time rationing food during World War II, life on her family farm and the endeavors she pursued. She says so many people are doing ancestry tracing to find out the names and places, but she thinks hearing what they went through in their words is important. She hopes that her grandchildren and someday, great-grandchildren, will listen to their family's history.

"It was really fun. I had an awful lot of years to look back on. Like my extensive career with IBM, then owning a business for 27 years, then my 16 years in government; it has been a busy life," said Bales. "He had excellent questions that prompted one to speak about things that have been at the back of the mind."

To date, Hilgers has captured 20 hours of his family's stories, what their childhood was like, who they loved and the struggles they endured. He says capturing these memories is important because eventually, there will not be a next year for the loved one. With video documentation, you can capture who they were.

"One day they are here, and one day they are gone. They have stories I don't know, and certainly, my kids don't know," he said. "With video, you have documentation of the little idiosyncrasies or the ticks of the way your loved one would talk and the animation in their voice and the hand gestures they use. You don't have that in a photo to recall 10 years later."

Bales, whose parents were elderly by the time she was born as the ninth of 10 children, says she wished she would have sat down and done something like this with her parents.

"My father graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1912, and he and my mom married in 1914. Then they went through the Great Depression and dealt with tough times, so of course, there are many questions I wish I would have asked them," said Bales.

After being inspired by her nephew, Bales did sit down with her eldest brother for an audio-recorded interview about his time on the farm, repairing planes in the Army and his career as a teacher at the North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton.


Gary Hilgers poses with his mom, Lillie Hilgers. Contributed photo

A few years ago, Hilgers' father passed away before recording his stories.

"I only have a few videos of him at the dinner table or in the background somewhere but not a full conversation."

Before Hilgers' mother passed away last September, just a month away from 99, he was able to capture almost seven hours of her stories about her childhood and later, her parenthood. "I am really glad I was able to do that," he said.

He learned of his mother's hardships in her early years, the struggles of being a first-time parent, and the love she shared with his father.

"They had to deal with tough times; we can't forget our history or where we have been. I think it is important to appreciate where we are today with all the luxuries we have in this world. It is heartwarming for me to sit down and listen to them."

Hilgers plans to save the interviews to pass on to his relative's immediate family so their memories can be watched for generations.


"I have an uncle I interviewed before he passed, and I plan on sharing it with his family," said Hilgers. "I can't think of a better gift than to interview someone before they go and then send it to their family."

"Some people probably think these things are not important, but they are, and they will be to your family and future generations. Don’t underplay them. I encourage people to do it; they will not regret it," added Bales.

Most of Hilgers' interviews are captured with his iPhone and his list of engaging questions has expanded over the years.

A series of the questions were made famous by James Lipton on his show, "Inside the Actors Studio," but originally came from the French television program, "Bouillon de Culture," hosted by Bernard Pivot in the 1990s.

At the end of each interview, Lipton would ask his interviewees 10 questions to reveal a side of them not seen before.

  • What is your favorite word?
  • What is your least favorite word?
  • What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?
  • What turns you off?
  • What is your favorite curse word?
  • What sound or noise do you love?
  • What sound or noise do you hate?
  • What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
  • What profession would you not like to do?
  • If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Hilgers says he adapted these questions for his interviews because they make for compelling answers and help you learn a lot about the person.
"I never asked my mom what her favorite curse word was," Hilgers chuckled.

"They have such cool stories; you think you know your family, but you do not know anything as far as the details of their lives. I get lost in what they had to endure and what they did when they were younger. And they really do want to tell their story and keep their memory going," said Hilgers. "Every one of the people I have interviewed is thrilled to talk about their lives. I do it more for them and my family members than for me."

Tips from Hilgers

Hilgers encourages everyone to get out and preserve their family's memories.

"Do it while there is still time left. It is so easy; take the time to video them and ask a myriad of questions. It is important to come back and do multiple interviews with the same person because usually, you end up thinking of something later you would have liked to ask them."

  • Set up your phone on a tripod or propped up next to you.

  • Capture only them in the camera lens.

  • Be close enough that their voices will be picked up (8-12 feet works well).

  • Interview in a separate room, or at least where there is no background noise.

  • Act like it is just you and them having a conversation.

  • Don't rush through the questions, and let them be the ones to talk. Plan for an hour and take breaks if needed.

Hilgers other questions

  • What's your first memory?

  • Tell us about your childhood?

  • Cooking meals/eating meals.

  • What was school like?

  • When were you happiest?

  • Who is the person who influenced your life the most?

  • Is there anything you regret not having asked your parents?

  • Tell me about your time in the military?

  • How did you meet your spouse? How old were you when you met/got engaged/got married? What was the wedding like?

  • Did you play any sports?

  • Did your parents ever share their memories with you about the day you were born?

  • If you could - or had to - choose another profession, what would that be?

  • Who were your heroes or role models when you were young?

  • What was your first job?

  • What was the saddest day of your life?

  • What was the happiest day of your life?

  • What life advice would you pass on to your children?

  • What kinds of clothes, hobbies, slang terms were popular when you were a teenager?

  • What significant world events were the most memorable while you were growing up?

  • Did you have a nickname? How did you get it?

  • Did you have chores around the house?

  • Do you remember a favorite bedtime story or poem?

  • Did your father or mother have a favorite saying you can remember them repeating?

  • What was your first home like? Describe your household appliances.

  • What was the funniest experience you ever had with a child (yours or someone else's)?

  • What is the scariest moment you experienced?

  • Which president did you admire most during your lifetime?

  • Was there another public figure you particularly admired?

  • Have you ever played a musical instrument?

  • What age has been the best age of your life? Why?

  • What is one thing that you don't know how to do – but wish you could

"And, one of my favorite questions to ask older people: 'What is the one invention that you think has changed your life more than anything else?'"

Gary Hilgers

Thalen Zimmerman of Alexandria joined the Echo Press team as a full-time reporter in Aug. 2021, after graduating from Bemidji State University with a bachelor of science degree in mass communication in May of 2021.
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