Remembering Julie Shearer, oral historian

By Ann Lage
Oral history interviewer (retired)
November 2022

Julie Gordon Shearer, an esteemed former colleague from the days when the Oral History Center was known as the Regional Oral History Office, passed away in August 2022.

Julie Shearer
Julie Shearer (Photo courtesy of Russ Ellis)

Julie joined the ROHO staff in 1978, as the office was ramping up its second large-scale project documenting California’s political leadership.  Having completed a comprehensive project on California governance during the years of Earl Warren’s gubernatorial administration, the office was now beginning to document the Goodwin Knight and Edmund “Pat” Brown administrations. Julie brought to the project an academic background in political science, relevant work experience as a journalist for the Mill Valley Record and as editor at UC’s Agricultural Extension, as well as personal experience as an environmental activist, most notably in the battle to prevent the building of a nuclear power plant at Bodega Head.

Julie’s interview subjects on the Knight-Brown project illustrate the breadth of the project’s scope, as well as Julie’s skill in connecting with diverse narrators. Her lengthy interview with Bernice Layne Brown focused on life in the governor’s mansion and the supporting role played by political spouses at the time, but Julie’s careful coaxing also elicited Mrs. Brown’s insights on the personal impacts of the governor’s difficult decisions, as in the Caryl Chessman capital punishment case. Others she interviewed included former Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty, who had opposed Pat Brown in the 1966 Democratic Party primary, and Helen Nelson, a pioneering consumer advocate and Brown’s appointee as California’s first Consumer Counsel.

In the early 1980s, ROHO’s political team launched its next major project, interviewing key figures in the Ronald Reagan gubernatorial administration, along with legislative leaders, political opponents, and community activists.  Julie contributed numerous interviews to the Reagan project, delving into issues as broad as parent advocacy for children with intellectual disabilities, criminal justice issues, and tax reduction efforts of the Reagan governor’s office.

Following completion of the Reagan project, Julie was on the ROHO team for the California State Archives State Government Oral History program, interviewing several legislators and agency administrators.

In the summer of 1985, Julie had a leading role in an innovative oral history project. Berkeley Chancellor Michael Heyman asked ROHO to conduct interviews examining how the campus managed the recent student protests demanding the university’s divestment from the South African apartheid regime. Sixteen interviews were conducted with campus officials and police officers, intended not only for the historical record but also for current and future campus administrators tasked with managing freedom of speech and assembly issues. The interviews were for internal use until their publication in 2013 as Six Weeks in Spring: Managing Protest at a Public University.

Highlights of Julie’s contributions in the 1990s include two gems: an extensive, two-volume oral history with Sidney Roger, A Liberal Journalist on the Air and on the Waterfront: Labor and Political Issues, 1932–1990; and a deep dive into the lives of S.I. Hayakawa and his wife, Margedant, in From Semantics to the U.S. Senate, ETC., ETC. Hayakawa was a noted semanticist, a controversial president of San Francisco State College during a turbulent period of Vietnam War protests, and a one-term U.S. Senator from California.

After more than two decades with ROHO, Julie retired, turning her full attention to her first love, music performance and composition.  A gathering in her memory featuring a concert of her music will take place at the Freight and Salvage music venue in Berkeley on February 5, 2023. Julie is survived by her husband of 32 years, William Russell Ellis, retired Berkeley professor and vice chancellor for Undergraduate Affairs, longtime supporter of the Oral History Center, and the subject of his own oral history, In the Golden Sandbox.  Julie is also survived by her two children, Kyle Pesonen and Amy Falzon, from her first marriage to David Pesonen, and by her brother, Alan Shearer. (David Pesonen is also the subject of a ROHO oral history, Attorney and Activist for the Environment, 1962–1992.)

Julie Gordon Shearer will be remembered not only for her many contributions to the oral history archive, but also for her remarkable personal qualities, her openness and joy in life, her gift for friendship, and her warm relationships with her interviewees as well as ROHO colleagues.

You can find the interviews mentioned here and all of the Oral History Center’s interviews from the search feature on our home page.                                                                             

Ann Lage conducted oral histories for the Oral History Center (previously called the Regional Oral History Office, or ROHO) from 1978–2013, on topics including natural resources and land use, the environmental movement, California political and social history, and the University of California. She was director of projects on the Sierra Club, the Disability Rights and Independent Living Movement, the Department of History at UC Berkeley, the University of California Office of the President, and Saving Point Reyes National Seashore. In the 1990s, she was deputy director of ROHO and then served as acting director following Willa Baum’s retirement. She holds a BA and MA in history from Berkeley.