CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Mike Youngren has looked through a lot of camera lenses in his life.
As the former director of production at West Virginia Public Broadcasting, he spent his days filming, editing and reviewing footage. Since his retirement a few years ago, Youngren has done video work for nonprofit organizations like Covenant House and the Center for Domestic Violence.
But it wasn't until he decided to film a community discussion last February about the renaming of the West Side's newest elementary school in honor of educator Mary C. Snow that he looked through his camera and saw something that truly moved him.
As he filmed the meeting with a borrowed camera, Youngren said he was inspired by the zeal of community leaders like the Rev. Matthew Watts who spoke in favor of the renaming.
"I'm looking through the lens, seeing the passion in their faces through the viewfinder, and I'm trying to figure out what's going on here," he said.
He could sense how important the issue was to those involved but said he realized how little he knew about the woman in question.
"A friend of mine asked me, 'Who is Mary Snow anyway? Why should she be getting a school named after her?' And I thought, that's a good question, maybe I'll find out. So I started to find out."
This curiosity led Youngren and a team of local academics on an 18-month journey to tell Snow's story. The end result is the recently completed documentary, "The Teacher," an hourlong examination of her life and times.
Using a blend of archival footage, original interviews and dramatizations of Snow's own words, the film paints a vivid portrait of how the educator overcame her circumstances growing up in segregated Charleston in the early 20th century to become the state's first female African American principal of an integrated school.
To help make the project a reality, Youngren recruited Catherine Breeze, an English and journalism teacher at St. Albans High School, and Bryan Ward, the assistant director of archives and history at the state Cultural Center.
Breeze also had been inspired by the contentious debate over the school's renaming and had begun to write Snow's biography. Ward was familiar with the story's historical context and had access to archive resources.
Within a few weeks of beginning the project, Breeze uncovered a 100-page transcript of an interview with Snow conducted at Marshall University in 1998 for its Appalachian History Archive project. A second interview was found in West Virginia State University's archives, followed by the discovery of a video interview shot by West Virginia Public Broadcasting shortly before Snow's death in 2011.
"We grabbed those up, made friends in the archive departments at Marshall and State, and I started to produce a draft of how I thought the thing ought to go," Youngren said.