Source: Lake Geneva Regional News

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Catching up with the man behind the lens
Area’s history one of a few new projects for local video producer

by Steve Targo

December 13, 2012

GENEVA — "There used to be barns all throughout town here," Tom Laughlin said, standing in the parking lot of U.S. Bank in Lake Geneva, the two-story white barn on the lot next door behind him. "That was how people made a living. This right here was a little, self-sufficient farming parcel."

Laughlin, 57, of the town of Geneva-based video company Kovia Productions, knows a thing — or several — about barns in Wisconsin.

His third documentary on the subject, which aired on the Wisconsin Channel, looks at barns in Vernon County, including Hillsboro.

The doc, "American Barn Stories and Other Tales From the Heartland," is on DVD, said Laughlin, whose DVDs — including ones not just about barns, but historic postcards and his "Pretty Picture" project, a term which he said he trademarked that describes his video of beautiful scenery in Walworth County — are available locally.

But Laughlin, who has referred to himself as someone "just trying to make a living with a camera," is already at work on a fourth barn doc.

And, perhaps, something a little more ambitious — a DVD about the history of the Geneva Lake area.

"I'm trying to get my arms around it now, but I know the starting point is going to be the Potawatomi. … but it's going to take a mountain of time," Laughlin said.

If that doesn't pan out, it appears the barn docs will. Laughlin said he looks at that project — which began as a one-off doc which turned into what likely will be four installments — as a continuing effort.

It seems to have a following.

He said he shows them at the Lake Geneva Public Library, and last February, the crowd was at capacity.

"What keeps me going on the barn shows (is) I'm always surrounded by people afterwards who say, 'Thank you.' Where are the generations of people who remember when these barns were still standing? Let's catch these people on camera while the getting's good," Laughlin said.

For the next barn doc, he said he's going to talk to the people who own that barn behind U.S. Bank, as well as a couple other barn owners on Park Row.

Laughlin also stated in a Nov. 26 email there are two identical barns located in the town of Linn, near Highway B, because "an early businessman in the 1800s, Edward Ayers, made a fortune selling railroad ties cut from local lumber to the railroad and built an identical barn for each of his twin daughters."

Spinning plates

Ask Laughlin about himself and he'll talk about his projects and his creative process.

During a Nov. 21 interview, the conversation bounced from him recently launching the Family Story Keepers website to that he has a box filled with story ideas in his office.

But what about Laughlin himself? What makes him tick?

As much as Laughlin seems to operate under the primary objective that things — life — must be chronicled, there's an interesting origin behind the name of his production company.

Kovia, according to its website,, derives from an Inuit Eskimo word, "Koviashuvik." It means to live in the present moment, with quiet joy and contentment.

Obviously, that Eskimo word means something significant to him.

Perhaps that's what he's trying to capture with his camera.

Or perhaps it has something to do with the relationship between him and his father, Thomas Joseph Laughlin, an undertaker on the south side of Chicago.

Tom Laughlin said his dad was also a skilled and respected hobby photographer.

He said his father died at the age of 56.

"I'm kind of living my life this way because my father's life was cut short," Laughlin said. "He may not have agreed with all the choices I made, but at this point, I think he'd be proud."

But in past interviews, Laughlin has talked about the importance of preserving history.

On Nov. 21, he said what he brings to each project is the interest in doing it, which suggests perhaps the interest itself is waning.

"Who else is out there doing it?" Laughlin asked.

He said he considers himself "the catalyst."

Laughlin said he hopes his Geneva Lake area history project begins simply by spreading the word he wants to do it.

He said he's looking for people who "have stories," or those who know someone they think would be a good interview.

"I'm hoping this might kind of take on its own life and be a running project over the course of time," Laughlin said.

These days, it appears he finds enough projects to keep himself busy.

Laughlin said that's the goal.

Sure, he said the greatest challenge in his line of work is to turn his hard work into dollars, he relayed an early memory from his childhood days, watching "The Ed Sullivan Show" on TV.

Laughlin said Sullivan had an entertainer on the show, someone who would come back from time to time.

One of the entertainer's tricks was to balance several plates on sticks.

"His challenge was to keep all the plates spinning," Laughlin said. "That's how I'm trying to live my life, like a lot of people."