Lester Telser: Beyond Conventions in Economics

Photo of Lester Telser
Photograph by Leena Schwartz, 2016

Now online, An Oral History with Lester Telser: Beyond Conventions in Economics

Lester Telser is Professor of Economics Emeritus at the University of Chicago. A student at Chicago in the 1950s, Dr. Telser was first a professor in the Graduate School of Business until 1964. Dr. Telser’s life work is the theory of the core, a variant of game theory that involves coalitions of agents as opposed to individuals working to maximize their advantage. He used sophisticated mathematics to study why and how certain forms of markets are organized without appeals to more established concepts in economics. As both a student and colleague at the Chicago economics department, and as a fellow at both the Cowles Commission and the Cowles Foundation, Telser is a key witness to the transformation of the field of economics after World War II.

Economist Life Stories

The impact of economics in our society is hard to overstate. Economics structures government policy, guides decision-making in firms both small and large, and indirectly shapes the larger political discourses in our society.

To enrich the understanding of the influence and sources of powerful economic ideas, the Becker Friedman Institute for Research in Economics at the University of Chicago set out in 2015 to capture oral histories of selected economists associated with Chicago economics. The aim was to preserve the experiences, views, and voices of influential economists and to document the historical origins of important economic ideas for the benefit of researchers, educators, and the broader public. This oral history with Lester Telser, conducted in ten sessions in Chicago, IL, from July to October 2017, is the third interview for the project.

Economist Life Stories is more than a collection of life histories; it chronicles the history of a scholarly community and institutions at the University of Chicago, such as the Graduate School of Business, the Cowles Commission, and the Department of Economics. It also reflects the achievements of faculty and students in the domains of economic policymaking and private enterprise around the world. Although this project focuses on the leaders and students of the University of Chicago Department of Economics, the Graduate School of Business, and the Law School, we hope to add more stories from economists around the world as the project expands.

Acknowledgments

Hodson Thornber and Paul Burnett organized the project with Toni Shears and Amy Boonstra of the Becker Friedman Institute, with important support from an advisory group of historians and economists.

Financial support for this work was provided by Hodson Thornber, a member of the Becker Friedman Institute Council, whose contribution is gratefully acknowledged.


J. Michael Bishop: Scientist, UCSF Chancellor, and Nobel Laureate

J. Michael Bishop with a model of DNA Photograph courtesy of UCSF Archives and Special Collections.
J. Michael Bishop with a model of DNA Photograph courtesy of UCSF Archives and Special Collections

This oral history with J. Michael Bishop is one in a series documenting bioscience and biotechnology in Northern California. Selecting Rous sarcoma virus, a cancer-causing retrovirus, after arriving at UCSF in 1968, Bishop was soon joined by Harold E. Varmus with whom he established a partnership legendary for its length and productivity. In a seminal publication of 1976, they established the proto-oncogene as a normal cell component and precursor of oncogenes. In 1989, Bishop and Varmus were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for this research. With some reluctance, Bishop agreed to become UCSF Chancellor in 1998. His highly productive eleven years saw the creation and staffing of the Mission Bay campus and record-breaking fundraising success, among other important events he oversaw. The oral history consists of five interviews conducted in 2016 and 2017, with an introduction by colleagues Bruce Alberts and Harold Varmus.

 


In Memory of Gildo Mahones (1929-2018)

Today we commemorate the life of Gildo Mahones, an inspiring, talented, and powerful bop-based pianist who grew up in Harlem in the 1930s and 40s and played with virtually all the jazz greats during the 1950s and 60s. He passed away last week at the age of 88. His 2015 oral history addresses a plethora of issues surrounding jazz: his childhood in Harlem, the advent of bebop and its luminaries, jazz vocalism, racism, and more.

Mahones was born to Puerto Rican parents in the Spanish section of East Harlem in 1929. Later the family moved to an apartment behind the Apollo Theatre, and in the 1950s, he eventually performed with many of the jazz greats he heard there as a teenager, including Duke Ellington and Count Basie. In a Berkeleyside feature of Mahones, writer Andrew Gilbert describes how the pianist and the piano were not love at first sight; after an unsuccessful first lesson at age seven, it took his mother moving the neighbor’s left-behind piano into their home and a family friend doling out some live tunes on the piano for Mahones to finally warm up to the instrument.  

After being hired to perform in 1949 at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem and then briefly serving in the military, Mahones became the pianist for Lester Young’s band at Birdland. Here, he wrote dozens of songs. On composing, Mahones said in his interview, “Oh, the songs come to me in many ways. […] A dream could blossom into a song.” He goes on to describe Young’s unique style of playing and his friendship with Billie Holiday, whom he dubbed Lady Day and who called Young ‘Prez’.

In 1965, Mahones moved to Los Angeles to work with Joe Williams and Harry “Sweets” Edison at the Pied Piper club, also working with vocalists O.C. Smith, Lou Rawls, James Moody, Big Joe Turner, and Lorez Alexandria, with whom he recorded several albums. Throughout the 1970s, he was a popular sideman in clubs across Southern California, and toured Japan and Europe with Benny Carter and with his own band. Mahones has several recordings published with a Japanese company, which unfortunately have not been released in the US. Later on, he and Mary, his wife of 45 years, moved to Oakland so as to be near their daughter and grandson. He practiced often and performed at clubs and galleries around the Bay Area.  

You can hear more of Mahones’ reflections in this video excerpt from his oral history.


Join Us in Welcoming Amanda Tewes!

We are pleased to welcome Amanda Tewes to the Oral History Center. Amanda joins our team as an Historian/Interviewer.

We wanted to get to know her a little better, so we did what we do best: asked her a few questions.

 

Q: When did you first encounter oral history?

A: I first encountered oral history almost ten years ago as a graduate student at Cal State Fullerton.  Oral history was an important part of the coursework for the public history program. After I completed work on my first exhibit about Marine Corps Air Station El Toro and a changing mid-century Orange County, California,,  I realized how much the oral histories featured in the show resonated with visitors; the oral histories made history personal and understandable.  Oral history has been part of my historical toolkit ever since.

 

Q: How did you use oral history in your graduate work?

A: Oral history played a key role in my dissertation. Oral history played a key role in my dissertation, Fantasy Frontier: Old West Theme Parks and Memory in California, which highlighted three Old West theme parks in California. I knew I wanted to study Old West theme parks in California, but the more research I did the more I realized that this was as much as story about memory and regional identity as it was about fictional representations of the past and the history of the parks themselves. Historians often have a hard time explaining why someone did something in the past, but conducting oral histories for this project opened a

window into the deep personal and ongoing connections individuals have to these theme parks, as well as helped answer the why of it all–why these parks were created, why they still exist (or don’t), and why they continue to matter.

 

Q: Which interviewers have been your biggest influences, either in or out of oral history?

A: I listen to a lot of podcasts and talk radio.  I appreciate interviewers who are quickly able to build rapport with their guests and who can think on their feet to ask poignant follow-up questions.  I think Terry Gross does this really well. She also has an uncanny ability to put her guests at ease and to elicit honest and personal reactions.

 

Q: What projects are you most excited to work on at the OHC?

A: I am really looking forward to working on the oral history project in collaboration with the Getty Trust.  Not only is this a fascinating organization with a storied past, but the project will also bring me back to my art history roots.

 

Q: What is your dream oral history project?

A: Right now my dream oral history project is one that explores politics and activism in California.  Political leadership and organizing in California has and continues to have important implications nationally, and I hope to work on a project that expands the Oral History Center’s impressive collection of interviews about politics in the Golden State.

 


The Berkeley Remix: Season 3 of the Oral History Center’s Podcast

Listen to Season 3 Episode 1 of our podcast now known as The Berkeley Remix.

First Response: AIDS and Community in San Francisco

This podcast is about the politics of the first encounters with the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco. The six episodes draw from the thirty-five interviews that Sally Smith Hughes conducted in the 1990s. A historian of science at UC Berkeley’s Oral History Office, Sally interviewed doctors, nurses, researchers, public health officials and community-health practitioners to learn about the unique ways that people responded to the epidemic. Although these interviews cover a wide range of topics, including the isolation of the virus HIV and the search for treatments, the interviews we selected for this podcast are more focused on public health, community engagement, and nursing care. Most of the following podcast episodes are about the period from early 1981, when the first reports emerged of an unknown disease that was killing gay men in San Francisco, to 1984 and the development of a new way of caring for people in a hospital setting.

Episode 1 explores what it was like to be gay in San Francisco in the 1960s and 70s, before people became aware of the epidemic.

Visit The Berkeley Remix for release of Episodes 2-6 each Wednesday.


Remembering Gene Brucker (1924-2017) and the Department of History Oral History Project

Remembering Gene Brucker (1924-2017) and the Department of History Oral History Project

We note with sorrow the passing in July of Professor Emeritus Gene Brucker, historian of Renaissance Florence, one of our esteemed oral history narrators, and the instigator and longtime supporter of our oral history series on the Department of History at Berkeley.

The oral history series had its beginning in 1995, when Gene was designated as the Faculty Research Lecturer. Instead of focusing his lecture on Renaissance Florence, he turned his historian’s eye on Berkeley, on his own department, where he had arrived in 1954 in time to participate in its postwar flowering into one of the most distinguished history programs in the US. In his research he found few remaining written records; surprisingly, the department had discarded a great deal of its own history. He turned to informal interviews with his colleagues to develop his lecture. Later discussion with his friend Carroll Brentano, historian of the University of California and wife of Gene’s colleague, Robert Brentano, led to the idea for an oral history project under the auspices of the Regional Oral History Office, predecessor to OHC. I was fortunate to work with them as the project director and interviewer. For over a decade Gene and Carroll served as project advisors. They convinced their colleagues to themselves become subjects of historical research, and they facilitated the funding that made the project possible.  

Gene Brucker

Among our wealth of oral histories on the University of California, OHC’s series on the Department of History at Berkeley stands out. With lengthy biographical oral histories of nineteen professors of European, American, and Asian history, and one faculty wife, all of whom came to Berkeley in the late 1940s to the early 1970s, it the most extensive of our several series on university departments. And thanks in great part to the vision of Gene Brucker, the interviews are extensive in scope as well: along with a deep dive into the personal background, education, and scholarly trajectories of each narrator, they discuss postwar departmental history in some detail, including governance, key hiring and promotion decisions, curriculum and teaching. And they examine Berkeley’s academic culture, the informal and formal associations and interactions that invariably affect scholarship. They also explore the involvement, often intense in this postwar generation, in broader campus governance and major campus controversies from the loyalty oath, free speech, and antiwar protests to the belated hiring of women faculty in the 1970s.

Having contributed so much to the project, Gene Brucker, a man who really did not like to talk about himself, finally agreed, reluctantly, to record an oral history in 2002. I met with him for eleven sessions, documenting his journey from farm boy in Cropsey, Illinois—via the University of Illinois, Oxford, Princeton, and the Florentine archives—to a career as a distinguished historian of Florence and preeminent citizen of the Berkeley campus. Like others in the series, it is replete with insights into academic culture, the historians’ craft, and the postwar years of growth and tumult on the Berkeley campus. Gene’s oral history and others in the Department of History project. See also “In Memoriam: Gene Adam Brucker

Ann Lage, interviewer emeritus, October 24, 2017.


In Memory of Ruth Bancroft 9/2/1908 – 11/26/2017

Photo of Ruth Bancroft in The Ruth Bancroft Garden
Ruth Bancroft, photo courtesy of The Ruth Bancroft Garden, photographer unknown

UC Berkeley alumna Ruth Petersson Bancroft, founder of The Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek and well-known expert in dry gardening, passed away at the age of 109 on Nov. 26. Her oral history, The Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek, California: Creation in 1971 and Conservation, conducted in 1991 and 1992, is described by interviewer Suzanne B. Riess as “…the amazing chronicle of the growth of a passionate gardener, from her childhood recollections of spring wildflowers on the hills of an earlier, bucolic Berkeley, to her current triumphs, and the tribulations of stewardship of a garden more or less in the public trust.”

The daughter of first-generation Swedish immigrants, Ruth Petersson was born in Massachusetts, but moved to Berkeley, California when her father landed a professorship at UC Berkeley. Of her childhood, she said, “I spent a lot of time wandering around and also over into Wildcat Canyon, just looking at the wildflowers and I think that’s what started me in the interest of wildflowers…” Although Ruth originally studied architecture as one of the only women in the program at UC Berkeley, the Great Depression hit and so for the sake of job security, she switched her career to education. It was during her time as a teacher of home economics in Merced that she met Philip Bancroft, Jr., the grandson of Hubert Howe Bancroft, whose 60,000-volume book collection began the Bancroft Library. After they married, the couple moved onto the Bancroft Farm in the East Bay. The Bancroft family sold much of their land to the city of Walnut Creek as it expanded over the years. Later, in 1971, Philip Bancroft, Jr. gave the last 3-acre plot of walnut orchards to his wife in order to house her extensive collection of succulents.

Though The Ruth Bancroft Garden now boasts a beautiful display of water-conserving plants, the garden was not without its hardships at the beginning. Just a few months after Bancroft began her garden, a severe freeze in December killed nearly all that she had planted. Still, she persevered. “Well, I started again the next year… I figured it doesn’t happen that often, and you can’t just not replant those same things, because they might have another twenty years before they’d be killed again. So I’m just replanting. Have to start over again.” To this, Riess queried, “You didn’t think in some way you had been given a message?” Bancroft laughed and replied, “No.”

A long-time friend of Bancroft and former manager at the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden, Wayne Roderick said, “I would classify Ruth as a genuine dirt gardener. She’s out there doing things with her bare hands. She would be out in the garden by seven at the latest, and for the first hour she was weeding the path of the little spotted spurge, hand-weeding those paths until her knees would get so sore from the rocks, the gravel. That’s what I mean by a genuine dirt gardener.” In addition to Bancroft’s hands-on style of working, she also kept meticulous records as she created her garden. An invaluable addition to her oral history is the transcription of the entirety of her handwritten notes on the garden’s first year, cataloguing every trial and triumph. Riess urges in her introduction to the oral history, “Any gardener will do well to read that year of Ruth’s journal, to see the value of a journal, as well as the work involved in realizing a dream, and the necessity of being willing to weed!”

Over the years, Bancroft also had many helpers that contributed to the development of her impressive creation, such as Lester Hawkins, who created the original design of the garden, and her husband Philip. Roderick recalls, “Phil Bancroft just adored Ruth, and he wanted her to have anything she wanted. He did everything he could to help her. I don’t think Phil thought about the garden continuing, but he certainly was there to make sure she got what she wanted for the place. He was a farmer-type, but he enjoyed seeing the garden, and he was willing to get in and help.” Later, her garden would inspire fellow gardener Francis Cabot to create the Garden Conservancy, of which the Ruth Bancroft Garden became the first of many private gardens to be preserved for the public.

Still, through all of the international recognition and acclaim she received, Bancroft maintained a simple and genuine love for gardening: “You never know just what’s going to bloom when, during the summer. And a lot of the bloom just lasts a day, or possibly two days. It’s interesting to see what there is, and catch it before it’s gone.” When asked whether she had had a mission for the garden, she replied, “I just started it for the fun of it, and the enjoyment of it. I had no idea that people would be looking at it, no idea at all.“

The Ruth Bancroft Garden will hold a public, all-day celebration of Bancroft’s life on February 17th, 2018.

Maggie Deng
Oral History Center Student Assistant


Announcing the Release of the California / San Francisco Fire Departments Oral History Project

The world of firefighting is much more than masked people in uniforms running into burning buildings and rescuing scared cats from trees. While the bravery of firefighters can’t be overestimated, they also work in a complex system that requires constant training and education, a cohesive partnership with local government, extensive procedures and protocols, managerial oversight, effective communication within departments and to the public, acute familiarity with the local and regional environment, and a whole lot of administrative work. The San Francisco Fire Department (SFFD) is a shining example of how people make a civil service operation run and keep people safe. All of these elements, as well as the historic and cultural aspects of the department, are why we chose it as our focus for our California Fire Departments Oral History Project.

The project was originally conceived by Sarah Wheelock, an independent researcher. She wanted to explore several major thematic areas of firefighting in California and she worked with the Oral History Center to do just that. With great sadness we learned that Sarah passed away in 2014 and thus she was unable to see the project through to completion. Taking over the project in 2016, I wanted to honor her original plan and cover the themes that she had outlined. So, I decided to embark on interviews within one department – the SFFD – to document the ways in which they have handled urban fire, climate change, diversity, technological change, and changing demographics.

The SFFD was founded in 1849 and was run by volunteers. It became a paid department, officially integrated into city government, in 1866. The 150th anniversary of the paid department was in 2016, when I was conducting interviews. Given my budget for the project, I was able to interview six people who worked with the SFFD in different capacities. I wanted to include multiple perspectives to understand the organizational, cultural, geographic, economic, and political systems of one of the oldest departments in the country.

The individuals who I interviewed were able to illustrate many of the themes that I wanted to document, and much more. Among the six people I interviewed were Chief Robert Demmons (the first and only African American chief of the SFFD who instrumental in integrating more more women and people of color into the SFFD), Bill Koenig (longtime firefighter and co-founder of Guardians of the City and the SFFD Museum), Jim Lee (also a longtime firefighter and co-founder of Guardians of the City and the SFFD Museum), Steve Nakajo (member of the SFFD Fire Commission), Lt. Anne Young (one of the first females hired), and Jonathan Baxter (longtime paramedic and current Public Information Officer). 

These interviews work in concert to illustrate day-to-day operations in the stations, administrative duties, how the city of San Francisco and the department work together, the relationship between paramedics and the department, training, equipment, fire science school, the role of unions, the challenges and triumphs of integrating the departments, the public perception of the department, the role of innovation and changing technology, cultural changes in the department, challenges in fire safety particular to the geography of San Francisco, and the hopes for the future of the SFFD.

It is with great excitement that we present the California / San Francisco Fire Departments Oral History Project. I want to give a special thanks to all of the narrators for sharing their stories with me and helping me to document one of the most historically significant fire departments in our country.

This project is dedicated to the memory of Sarah Wheelock. Her California Firefighter oral histories from the 2000s will be released in early 2018. 


From the Oral History Center Director – OHC and Education

For an office that does not offer catalog-listed courses, the Oral History Center is still deeply invested in — and engaged with — the teaching mission of the university.

For over 15 years, our signature educational program has been our annual Advanced Oral History Summer Institute. Started by OHC interviewer emeritus Lisa Rubens in 2002 and now headed up by staff historian Shanna Farrell, this week-long seminar attracts about 40 scholars every year. Past attendees have come from most states in the union and internationally too — from Ireland and South Korea, Argentina and Japan, Australia and Finland. The Summer Institute, applications for which are now being accepted, follows the life cycle of the interview, with individual days devoted to topics such as “Project Planning” and “Analysis and Interpretation.”

In 2015 we launched the Introduction to Oral History Workshop, which was created with the novice oral historian in mind, or individuals who simply wanted to learn a bit more about the methodology but didn’t necessarily have a big project to undertake. Since then, a diverse group of undergraduate students, attorneys, authors, psychologists, genealogists, park rangers, and more have attended the annual workshop. This year’s workshop will be held on Saturday February 3rd and registration is now open.

In addition to these formal, regularly scheduled events, OHC historians and staff often speak to community organizations, local historical societies, student groups, and undergraduate and graduate research seminars. If you’d like to learn more about what we do at the Center and about oral history in general, please drop us a note! 

OHC student employees Hailie O'Bryan and Pilar Montenegro
OHC student employees Hailie O’Bryan and Pilar Montenegro in front of our “blue wall of transcripts”

In recent years we have had the opportunity to work closely with a small group of Berkeley undergrads: our student employees. Although the Center has employed students for many decades, only in the past few years have they come to play such an integral role in and make such important contributions to our core activities. Students assist with the production of transcripts, including entering narrator corrections and writing tables of contents; they work alongside David Dunham, our lead technologist, in creating metadata for interviews and editing oral history audio and video; and they partner with interviewers to conduct background research into our narrators and the topics we interview them about. With these contributions, students have helped the Center in very real, measurable ways, most importantly by enabling an increase in productivity: the past few years have been some of the most productive in terms of hours of interviews conducted in the Center’s history. We also like to think that by providing students with intellectually challenging, real-world assignments, we are contributing to their overall educational experience too.

As 2017 draws to a close, I join my Oral History Center colleagues Paul Burnett, David Dunham, Shanna Farrell, and Todd Holmes in thanking our amazing student employees: Aamna Haq, Carla Palassian, Hailie O’Bryan, Maggie Deng (who wrote her first contribution to our newsletter this issue), Nidah Khalid, Pilar Montenegro, Vincent Tran, and Marisa Uribe!

Martin Meeker, Charles B. Faulhaber Director of the Oral History Center


Connections and Friendships: Roger Samuelsen’s Years with the University of California

New to the Oral History Center: Connections and Friendships: Roger Samuelsen’s Years with the University of California

Roger Samuelsen has held a number of key administrative positions for the University of California System. A graduate of UC Berkeley’s School of Law in 1964, Samuelsen was the Director of the UC’s Natural Reserve System from 1974 until 1991. He subsequently served on the Executive Staff to the Site Selection Task Force, which was responsible for recommending to the President and The Regents the site of the tenth campus, and assumed several leadership roles during the early development of UC Merced. Throughout his career, he has maintained a deep involvement in UC Berkeley, and served on multiple boards and committees. He has also served on boards and committees with the Save the Redwoods League, the Lindsay Wildlife Museum, and the Orinda Community Church.

This oral history is, like many of those that are part of the University History series, the continuation of institutional history by means of a life story. Through the life of Roger Samuelsen, we learn about the history of the development of the Natural Reserve System of the University of California; the site selection for the tenth campus of the UC system, UC Merced; and the changing fortunes and evolution of UC Berkeley, his alma mater and an important lifelong focus.

What immediately became apparent as I was preparing for this oral history was the enthusiasm his friends and former colleagues showed for the project. The refrain was that Roger was a key driver in the institutions that he helped to found and develop. As I began to work with Roger, I wanted to understand this particular species of administrator in the UC system. For many years, Roger was the director of the Natural Reserve System, which he shepherded from its initial foundation to encompass dozens of sites across California, preserving and guaranteeing access to unique ecosystems for the benefit of the public, students, and the international scientific community.

What did it take to succeed in roles such as these? Like the organisms in the ecosystems he worked to preserve, Roger fit well into the ecosystem of the University of California. When he graduated from UC Berkeley, Roger was passionate about student life and politics, and was already well developed to lead a purposeful life. After training as a lawyer, he immersed himself in the elements that make up higher education in California: laws, rules, institutions, money, and people, most of all people. This immersion would serve him well in his second career helping to develop the recommendations for the final site of the tenth campus of the University of California – UC Merced.

Both the NRS and the UC Merced site-selection stories turn on the use of land in California. It is difficult to think of a more contentious domain with more numerous stakeholders.  It will become apparent in this oral history that the key to success in managing these contentious spaces was Roger’s passion for the people and nature of California. He developed strong bonds with the people with whom he worked in the course of his career. He grew to share the deeper purpose of the preservation of the diversity of life in these precious ecosystems of California, and the preservation of the diversity of opportunity that the University of California represents. To that end, he has devoted uncounted hours volunteering his time and efforts to strengthen the university by helping to raise funds and administer programs for the university system and even K-12 schools. Since his encounters with Clark Kerr as a young man, Roger has spent his life fostering the furtherance of the democratic ideal of California education.

I am concerned that Roger’s humility and care for others sometimes obscured the extent of his roles in these larger stories. You will note that he readily deflects attention away from himself and toward the work and importance of his friends, family, and colleagues. For Roger, this oral history was in many ways an exercise in the expression of gratitude. But it is also perhaps an example of how he has lived a life very deeply connected to others.

Paul Burnett, Berkeley, CA