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.“
Oral History Center Student Assistant
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.
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!
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
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
Now available: Hadley Roff: A Life in Politics, Government and Public Service Oral History Transcript with video excerpts below. Hadley Roff (1931-2016) was a top aid and advisor to four San Francisco mayors from 1967 to 1992: Joseph Alioto, Dianne Feinstein, Art Agnos and Frank Jordan. He attended Stanford University from 1950 to 1954 where he was editor of the Stanford Daily. From 1957 to 1964 he was a night beat reporter for the S.F. News. He became a vocal advocate for firefighter safety and was beloved by the San Francisco Fire Department, serving on the Fire Commission beginning in 1995. In these interviews, Roff recalls the turbulence in San Francisco in the 1970s and 1980s: Harvey Milk’s and George Moscone’s assassinations in 1978, Jonestown, the early years of the AIDS crisis. He recalls events on the national stage as they played out in San Francisco: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination and Watergate, among others. In 1992 Roff was press secretary for Dianne Feinstein’s senatorial campaign, and head of her California senate staff office from 1992 to 1995.
We are delighted to introduce the oral history of our former colleague, Malca Chall: Wage Rate Analyst for the War Labor Board, World War II; East Bay Community Activist; Interviewer/Editor for the Regional Oral History Office, 1967-2000.
Malca is well known in the Oral History Center as a key staff member for thirty-three years. She came to the Regional Oral History Office, as we were then named, in 1967 and soon became an indispensable and respected interviewer, project director, and right-hand woman to director Willa Baum. Over the years she planned and carried out an impressive array of oral histories, most prominently in the fields of California water policy and politics and government. Her final volume of interviews was completed in 2000.
Few of Malca’s colleagues were aware of an earlier chapter in her life: her employment with the National War Labor Board in Seattle during World War II. Once we learned of her work as a wage rate analyst in the Seattle area for the War Labor Board, we realized that her story would add a unique perspective to our Rosie the Riveter / World War II American Home Front Project. Recognizing an opportunity to also document some important history of the Regional Oral History Office, where I was her colleague for many years, I offered to record Malca’s wartime experiences as the first topic in a longer oral history encompassing her career with ROHO. Only after meeting with Malca to plan her oral history did I realize the importance of also discussing her extensive civic activism in the Hayward/Castro Valley area. In many ways, her volunteer activities with the League of Women Voters and other citizen groups, as well as her wartime experiences, informed her pursuits as an interviewer and project director at ROHO.
Malca Kleiner Chall was born in 1920 in Tacoma, Washington, to a family active in business, in civic affairs, and in the Jewish community. Malca graduated from Reed College and received a master’s degree in political science at the University of Iowa.
In 1943, she accepted an offer from George Bernard Noble, her major professor at Reed who had been appointed head of the War Labor Board, Twelfth Region, to join his staff in Seattle. At age twenty-three, with minimal formal training, she stepped into the ticklish job of analyzing requests for wage increases from both labor and industry, as the WLB sought to dampen inflationary pressures in the midst of critical labor shortages. She visited potato fields, apple orchards, and fisheries, as well as banks, aluminum factories, shipping companies, and other work sites, conducting research and making determinations on acceptable wage rates.
In the oral history Malca reflects on the impact of her wartime employment and also discusses social and political life in wartime Seattle for a young professional woman. An amusing highlight of this section is her account of a bike trip with a friend and colleague, during which the two young women spent a night in a jail cell, arranged by the police of Everett, Washington, when the friends found themselves without a safe place to sleep.
Following the war, Malca moved to New York in search of a job in labor relations. She found work instead with the Edward Bernays public relations firm and in time met and married her husband, Harold Chall. After they moved west to California, settling south of Oakland in San Leandro and then Hayward and Castro Valley, Malca launched her second career as a civic activist, or as she puts it, “a pioneer of controversy in the community.” She worked for the Community Welfare Council in Oakland until the birth of the first of her two sons, David and Barry. As a young mother, she joined the League of Women Voters and was soon a leader in its Eden Unit, spearheading a study of the Hayward city government and helping to draft and secure voter approval for substantial charter revisions. She was active in campaigns for local political figures, including March Fong Eu’s election to the State Assembly as the second woman and first Asian American in the California legislature. She was also prominent in numerous battles to counter right-wing-John Birch Society-McCarthyite pressures in the Hayward area and to secure increased funding for local schools.
In 1967, Malca was hired by Willa Baum, long-time director of the Regional Oral History Office. Her background in political issues and personal relationships with East Bay women who had entered the arena of local and statewide government soon led to the development of one of ROHO’s earliest major projects, California Women Political Leaders, focusing on elected officials, political party officers, and community leaders from 1920 to 1970. She documented an era where women in elected offices at the state and federal levels were few and far between, demonstrating how they had nevertheless long been active, if often behind the scenes, in governance of political parties and community organizations, in local government and on school boards. She helped secure project funding for the Women Political Leaders project from multiple sources, including the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Rockefeller Foundation, honing an essential survival skill in an office that was funded almost solely by grants and gifts. Malca directed the Women Political Leaders project and was eventually tapped to conduct interviews in a variety of other subject areas, from banking to education to health care, even as she became the primary interviewer on California water policy for many years. Her wide-ranging work on water—from sanitary engineers to the founders of Save-the-Bay, from Governor Pat Brown and state water resource managers to the architects of the historic federal Central Valley Project Improvement Act—has made the Oral History Center’s collection an essential source for researchers on California water issues.
Willa Baum soon recognized Malca’s organizational skills, work ethic, and attention to detail and enlisted her for key tasks in office management. In the oral history, Malca describes preparing style and indexing guidelines for her projects, which became templates for many others. She researched average times to complete each aspect of the oral history process, an essential budgeting tool. Most impressive was the multi-paged comprehensive production manual, outlining each task in the oral history process, whose responsibility it was, and in which file drawer each stage of the evolving transcript should be placed, an essential document for an office primarily staffed by a shifting array of part-time workers, as many as thirty people sharing desks in a four-room space. Malca also discusses her contributions to outreach, including performing with Amelia Fry in a play based on ROHO’s interviews with suffragists. Throughout the oral history she recalls many of the ROHO women (almost all staff members were women), and the leadership qualities of Willa Baum, as well as friendships, fun, and challenges of her three-decade career with the Regional Oral History Office.
From January to May 2015, Malca and I met for seven sessions at her Hayward home to record her oral history. After receiving the lightly edited transcript, she undertook her characteristically careful review, did further research to check her facts, and added in names or details she had overlooked. She did not edit her words beyond a few clarifying changes. As we finished the review, Malca was packing up her house for a move to a retirement community nearby. Ever the careful historian, as she sifted through files she gathered historically significant papers and placed them with the Hayward Area Historical Society or the Bancroft Library, as appropriate. Her research files relating to water issues went to the Water Resources Center Archives (now the Water Resources Collections and Archives at UC Riverside) when she retired from ROHO.
Nearly all of the oral histories Malca Chall conducted during her ROHO career are available on line through the Oral History Center website, where also can be found the oral history with former director Willa K. Baum, conducted in part by Malca Chall. The Oral History Center is a division of the Bancroft Library and is under the direction of Martin Meeker. Special thanks are due to David Dunham who directs the World War II American Home Front project; he first tapped Malca as a Rosie interviewee and has shepherded this oral history throughout the process.
Out From the Archives: Caroline Service, State Department Duty in China, the McCarthy Era, and After, 1933-1977
“I was tired of being silent.” On December 13, 1951 Caroline Service marched into Senator Hiram Bingham’s office because she “wanted to see the man at the top.” Hours earlier, Bingham’s Loyalty Review Board had determined that her husband, John S. “Jack” Service, would be fired from the State Department on charges of dubious loyalty to the United States. Bingham’s office staff tried to put her off, but Caroline announced that she had nothing else to do and would wait all afternoon for the senator. They let her in. Caroline recalls on page 141 of her oral history, Bingham took her hand and greeted her, “What can I do for you, little lady?” “I could have screamed. ‘Little lady.’ Awful.” She told Bingham that he had done a great injustice to a worthy man. He replied, “Many people have had grave injustices done to them,” and showed her out.
Caroline Service’s oral history, recorded in 1977 by Rosemary Levenson, is volume II to her husband John S. Service’s oral history, but it stands on its own for its unique perspective on foreign service life and the McCarthy witch hunts. Her oral history also details many experiences that were Caroline’s alone. Jack was already in Kunming, China, in 1933 when Caroline, newly graduated from Oberlin, sailed from San Francisco to join and marry him in Haiphong. The journey took her nearly two months, and included having her appendix removed in Shanghai and a terrible typhoon on board a boat moored off Hainan Island. During her time in China, Caroline would be evacuated three times — the first in 1935, the second in 1937, and the last in 1940 — all while Jack remained in China. The Services spent six and a half of their first thirteen years of marriage separated by war and Jack’s work.
In 1951 the country was gripped by anti-Communist hysteria and Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunts found victims in government, academia, and entertainment. Jack Service and his State Department colleagues, the “China hands,” made convenient targets. They were blamed for “losing China,” accused of being Communists, and fired or forced to resign in disgrace. It began for the Services in 1945 when Jack was arrested by the FBI on charges of espionage in the Amerasia case. Caroline, seven months pregnant and staying with her parents in Berkeley, heard the news on the radio. Two months later, in Washington D.C., Caroline would deliver their son Philip on the day Jack was exonerated. The Service family would enjoy a brief period of calm, a post in New Zealand, and the feeling that, “It was over. Nobody would be attacking us or be after us… Jack was no longer connected with China at this time” (page 111). But Jack’s loyalty would be called into question again in 1949 when the Communists won out over the nationalists and diplomatic relations with China broke down.
The Services were determined to appeal the loyalty board verdict, clear Jack’s name, and restore his State Department status. They were vindicated in 1957 when the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Jack’s favor. Later that year, Jack was reinstated at the State Department though he never again was given a sensitive post or a promotion, and he retired early in 1962. After retirement, the Services settled in Oakland and Jack enrolled at UC Berkeley for a master’s in political science. He had a second career at the Center for Chinese Studies, and in 1971 the Services traveled again to China. On page 202 Caroline describes her surprise as their lives circled back around: “If someone had told me earlier that I was going to China in 1971 I would have said, ‘Impossible.’ We never could have believed that such a thing would happen.”
Julie Allen, Oral History Center
From the Director: Oral History, Free Speech & Listening
For the past five years, the Oral History Center at UC Berkeley has hosted an annual event in which we honor and express our gratitude to those individuals who donated their time and energy by agreeing to be interviewed. Held every spring, we run this event as a commencement ceremony. We read the names of each narrator whose interview was completed over the year (111 in 2016-2017!), we show video clips from selected interviews, and then we offer our sincere congratulations to the “Oral History Class” of that year. This event has been amazingly successful, each year attracting nearly 100 individuals. Campus friends, community partners, donors, and, of course, our interviewees and often their families too. The event is equally special to the wide range of our interviewees, whether that be a retired Berkeley professor who has spent decades on campus or to a woman who worked in the shipyards in World War II and despite living a few miles from Berkeley had never stepped foot on campus before this event.
This year, in spite of invitations mailed and catering secured, the event almost didn’t happen. As luck would have it, another event was booked for the same night as our event: controversial conservative pundit Ann Coulter was set to speak on campus. Chances are you know what follows because the whole imbroglio became national news, but here’s a brief rundown to serve as a reminder: conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos was invited by Berkeley College Republicans to speak on campus on February 1, 2017. In response to this anticipated speech, protesters assembled and, later in the evening, the protests turned violent when anarchists took over and ran roughshod over the university and nearby downtown Berkeley, vandalizing businesses and causing general mayhem. People were injured and the university and city suffered fairly widespread (and expensive) property damage. And Milo was prevented from speaking. The College Republicans, frustrated and humiliated by the events of February 1st, doubled-down and invited Ann Coulter to speak. In the weeks and days before her scheduled appearance, rhetoric from all sides flared, initially sparked by anarchists who vowed to use violent tactics to prevent her from speaking. We waited until the last minute, hoping that cooler heads would prevail, but a few days before the event was to take place the university police recommended that we cancel, suggesting that they couldn’t guarantee security to our staff or our attendees — which spooked us a great deal considering that many of those expected to attend were elderly and unfamiliar with the campus.
I personally found the whole set of events depressing, even disturbing, and I began to think about the relationship between free speech and the power of listening, of hearing — and, thus, of the relationship of each to what we practice in our office: oral history. And while this audience needs no definition of oral history, I think it worth mentioning that all of our interviews are preceded by extensive research, the interviews are recorded on digital video and transcribed in their entirety so that interviewees are given the opportunity to review and approve their interviews prior to their release to the public. That is, in a nutshell, how we practice listening, hearing… oral history.
Within a few weeks, we decided to reschedule the event (it was held on June 22nd), and it went off without a hitch! We expected about 60 people to show, but more than 90 people attended, including 98-year old Ed Howden, a legendary civil rights pioneer who staged free speech gatherings on the Berkeley campus when he was a student — in 1940! What follows are the remarks that I prepared for that event and I hope that you find them to be of interest and perhaps inspire you to recognize the importance of the work we do as oral historians in this day and age.
I want to welcome everyone to the Oral History Class of 2017 Commencement Celebration — the fifth annual hosting of this very special event! As you probably know, we needed to reschedule from April because of the anticipated appearance of a controversial speaker on campus, and the threat of violent response by groups of individuals who wanted to prevent that speaker from appearing.
Our event was a casualty of the moment, but one might say that free speech was a casualty too — which is a difficult scenario to watch for someone who relishes in the fact that this university was the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement just over 50 years ago! But, you can breathe a sigh of relief: I’m not going to lecture about that speaker or those who were opposed to her this evening. But I do want to begin this event with a few thoughts about the integral connections between free speech and oral history.
The First Amendment to our Constitution guarantees that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech …” and this has been widely understood to mean that as a people we are granted the right to speak our minds, to pronounce our opinions (popular or unpopular), and even to say things that others might deem obscene or distasteful, so long as these words do not incite violence. As such, our doctrine of free speech is absolutely necessary for the successful practice of oral history — for the practice of recording subjective memories of times past and often opinionated interpretations of the impact of the past on our lives today. Not the interviewer or anyone else can guarantee the right to our narrators to speak freely for that right is granted to them by our most fundamental laws.
Quite happily, our narrators freely invoke their rights and convey stories both mundane and profound, political opinions widely shared and deeply unpopular, accounts of events that hew closely to previously-accepted versions and recollections that depart wildly from what we think we know. As an interviewer, I appreciate — indeed, cherish — everything that comes out in an interview and am always gratified that even in this day and age of perpetual scrutiny of what we say, people still feel a great deal of freedom to speak their minds and share their innermost thoughts. This, I think, is a true strength and contribution of oral history: the creation of a venue for the exercise of the freedom of speech
But there is another element here that I most want to emphasize today — something that is just as necessary and perhaps even more powerful than free speech itself. This is something that we might see as the verso of free speech and this is the call to listen so that all this speech might actually be heard. Indeed, one might argue that we live in a world with too much speech, not nearly enough listening. I think that people tend to speak more loudly and say things that are more extreme not necessarily because they hold true to those beliefs closely but because they feel like they are just not being heard in the first place.
This is where the unrecognized transformative power and importance of oral history resides: oral historians have spent decades (well, millennia if you go back to Herodotus and Thucydides) perfecting the art, the craft, the scholarly methodology of interviewing, of listening, of actually hearing what our narrators are saying. The good oral historian is not merely a passive sounding board, quietly nodding while making sure the recording equipment is working. Instead, the good oral historian listens deeply to what our narrator is saying, simultaneously comparing it to what we’ve heard others say, and then asks follow-up questions seeking clarification, new information, confirmation or disputation of interpretations. In this way, good oral historians communicate to their narrators that they are being heard, that their ideas are being wrestled with, that their version of events … matters!
By being truly heard in this fashion, our narrators don’t typically feel the need to shout, to defame, to become frustrated. Instead, they rise to the occasion and present their stories almost always in thoughtful and in-depth sentences often replete with new insights. Human discourse is elevated in these settings and, well, I think that we are all better for it. Thus, in oral history we discover not only a place in which the freedom of speech is beautifully enacted, but just as importantly, a place in which the person who goes to the trouble of giving their point of view actually feels heard. And, I want to point out that none of this could be actualized without the thoughtful and engaged work done by our staff of interviewers, editors, and technologists or the generous contributions of you, our interviewees.
This is why I’m so proud of the work that we do at the Oral History Center. This is a unique and valuable place in which we solicit, value, and hear stories from people across all walks of life: people who come to us from different economic, education, racial, ethnic, gender, religious, ideological, and political backgrounds and beliefs. In the class of 2017, our interviewees ranged in age from 27 to 98; they were born in the US and abroad and live in states from New York to Oklahoma to California; they are CEOs and social activists; attorneys and welders; former Fire Chiefs and pioneering linguists; they are Republicans, Democrats, independents or their political affiliation is simply unknown to us. I should add that this profound diversity of narrators demonstrates that Berkeley’s Oral History Center does not discriminate by recording interviews only with those whom we view as heroic or as validating beliefs that we hold personally — we seek to interview and to listen to as many varied individuals as possible. We value all voices and we treat each interviewee the same: we endeavor to truly hear what they — what you — have to say.
Charles B. Faulhaber Director
Oral History Center at UC Berkeley
Highlights from the Oral History Class of 2017!
Jim Chappell is one of San Francisco’s unsung heroes. Chappell, who is thoughtful, articulate, savvy, and pragmatic, has helped shape San Francisco into a modern city. Have you ever used SPUR’s Ballot Analysis to help you understand the county’s elections? Chappell writes those. Have you noticed that Union Square looks and feels better than it used to? Chappell worked on its redesign. Have you ever wondered how MUNI functions? Chappell makes sure that it works for its riders.
There are dozens of other projects on which Chappell worked during his tenure as SPUR’s Executive Director from which we benefit. There are many projects that are unknown because they are invisible to us, and this is because he has made it so we don’t have to think much about them. He has spent much of his career making San Francisco a manageable city (aside from housing prices, another he issue that he and SPUR work on consistently).
In our interview with Chappell, which was conducted in 2016 by Todd Holmes and Shanna Farrell, we explore some of the lesser known histories of planning in the city. By the virtue of his training and experience, he is an expert of what makes San Francisco function, what its greatest needs and challenges have been, and how to work within a system to affect change to keep it working for its residents. His interview is like the oral history version of the 99% Invisible podcast, and Chappell shares a part of San Francisco’s history that can’t be found elsewhere.
The Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library is pleased to announce the release of a new life history interview with Malcolm Margolin, author, publisher, and founder of Heyday Books in Berkeley. In twenty-two wide-ranging interviews, Kim Bancroft and Malcolm Margolin explore Margolin’s childhood in Boston, his education at Harvard, his travels, his friendships and family life, his work as a publisher, historian, and writer, and much more. These are conversations between friends, conducted from 2011-2013 in celebration of Heyday’s 40th anniversary in 2014, and the tone is warm. The 22 interviews were the basis for the book, The Heyday of Malcolm Margolin: The Damn Good Times of an Independent Publisher. We are thrilled to add the complete oral history, “Malcolm Margolin: ‘Such a goddamn beautiful life’: Conversations about Heyday Press and Everything Else,” to our collection.
Linda Norton, Senior Editor
Oral History Center, The Bancroft Library