No stranger to longtime readers of The Westbury Times, 98-year-old local resident Ethel Hall may well soon be recognized as a national treasure thanks to her appearance in an upcoming PBS special.
Late last month, Hall, who is still active in the Methodist church and is blessed with a memory as clear as crystal, was interviewed on camera in her Lewis Street home by none other than the award winning documentarian Ken Burns, creator of the much heralded Civil War and The History of Baseball for public television.
"It really happened quite by chance," Hall recalled last Thursday. "As you know, I have have a lovely woman, Phyllis Gardener, who helps me out in the morning, and she has a friend whose daughter works with Ken Burns up in New Hampshire.
"Now, as it happens, through a series of conversations, the details of which were unbeknownst to me at the time, Phyllis learned that Ken Burns was looking for someone who had voted the year women first got the right to vote.
"As a result of those conversations, the daughter, Pamela Backum, came to visit with me, and we talked for quite awhile. Then she asked me if I would mind being interviewed on camera for a television program."
It was the kind of request that Hall, a retired school teacher, gladly obliged - you see, though approaching the century mark, she is still possessed of a persistent need to impart information.
That said, Hall freely admitted the other day that she hadn't quite anticipated what was in store for her, one crisp autumn morning a few weeks hence.
"I guess I was expecting someone to come by with a little hand-held video camera, like they do for interviews with local historical societies," she laughed. "Instead, I received a telephone call informing me that a film crew would arrive at my home at 8:30 in the morning and that I would be interviewed around 10."
And so it was that on September 17, Ethel Hall, private citizen of Westbury, New York, rose early to ready coffee and cake for a crew that turned out to consist of three men and three women.
"They came in two different cars and carried in these great big cases and quickly proceeded to set their camera and equipment up in the living room.
"There were wires all over the place," Hall continued. "It was really something. And then almost precisely at 10 o'clock, this very nice man came up to me and said, 'Hi, I am Ken Burns,' and he led me over the wires, from the kitchen, to a place in the living room where they'd set one of my dining room chairs."
Asked if she was at all nervous about the undertaking, Hall said no, and then laughingly admitted that because of all the excitement, she hadn't really realized exactly who Ken Burns was - "If I had, I probably would have been really nervous," she chuckled.
Burns quickly made her comfortable and advised her not to look at the lights set up around her, but instead, just look at him.
"Oh, he was so nice," she said. "And perhaps the best interviewer I've ever seen anywhere."
The interview recorded by Burns will be used in an upcoming PBS special on Susan B. Anthony and the women's suffrage movement. Currently he's working on two other major documentaries, one of the adventures of Lewis and Clarke, and the second, a life of Mark Twain.
"As he started to question me, he wanted to know what kind of celebrations were held to mark the first time women had the right to vote, and frankly, I had to tell him there weren't any, as most women weren't even interested.
"The custom at the time was that the men did the voting and the women were always in the kitchen," Hall said. "Nobody made a big thing of it. We just showed up at the polls."
Looking back over the span of seven decades, Hall said she still remembers quite vividly her first voting experience. "I can remember walking into the booth, pulling the curtain closed and - as voting machines had yet to be invented - writing my ballot out and dropping it into a box."
The first vote she cast, much to her delight today, was for Warren G. Harding for president. "You know, of the Teapot Dome scandal," Hall said.
"My father was a great Republican and an admirer of Theodore Roosevelt, and since I had grown up in Oyster Bay and times being what they were, I guess I followed suit."
In fact, Hall said, she continued to vote Republican until well into her eighties. Now, she often splits her vote and most recently voted for Democrat Bill Clinton for President.
'While he was here, Mr. Burns asked me a number of questions, one of which was whether I still have faith in this country," Hall said.
"Of course, I do," she said she replied. "No one who lived through the Depression years and then lived to see the economic strength we've become, could lose faith in this country."
Hall added, "You know what I wish though? I wish the people who were governing in our country would care more about the country than in keeping their party in power."
Hall was then asked why she thought Ken Burns was such a good interviewer.
"Well, I'll tell you," she said. "I have watched David Frost on Channel 13, and I have watched Barbara Walters and a few others, and in each case, I think they place the emphasis on himself or herself - not the person they are talking to.
"Ken Burns made me feel like I was the important person, like I had something important to say. He was such a lovely young man."
Born in 1899, Hall's treasure trove includes a host of memories of times gone by - including how she used to walk three miles to school every day as a young child - and memorized passages from the historic and literary past.
During a recent conversation, she not only quoted, verbatim, Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, but also the writings of Lord Byron and John Milton.
"These are all things I memorized while walking through the woods to school," she said. "Today these are my riches."
Asked about her vote in this year's election, a vote she cast for the first time in her life by absentee ballot, the longtime activist in the League of Women Voters said she supported Tom Gulotta for county executive.
"In the local races, I don't know all of the people, so this year I have to admit, I was primarily interested in Mr. Gulotta," Hall said.
"Because I think he has a very nice touch with people. No matter what's going on, he gets out to where they are. He doesn't have an excuse for not being there. He gets close to the people."