New Release Oral History: Phil Freese, Innovator and Leader in the Practice of Winegrowing

The Oral History Center is pleased to release a new life history interview with leading winegrower Phil Freese.

Philip Freese is a co-founder and co-owner of Vilafonté, a South African winery that produces varietal red wine. Freese was born in 1945 in Indiana. He was educated at Purdue University (BS) and University of California Davis (PhD) where he studied biochemistry. He left the field of biochemistry to pursue a career in the wine industry in 1978, first working as vineyard manager for a CalPlans vineyard in Napa County and then, beginning in 1982, as a winegrower for Robert Mondavi, eventually becoming Vice President of Winegrowing. In the 1990s he started both a wine consulting firm, Winegrow, and, with his wife winemaker Zelma Long, the winery Vilafonté in South Africa.

Phil Freese in South Africa

In this interview, Freese discusses the following topics: upbringing and education in science; early career as a biochemist; the evolution of the California wine industry from the 1970s through the 1990s, with a special focus on Napa Valley and viticulture; the multiple facets of viticultural practice and research, including the definition of “winegrowing”; the North Coast Viticultural Research Group; Robert Mondavi Winery in the 1980s and 1990s; vineyard consulting practices; the wine industry in South Africa from the 1990s through the 2010s; and Vilafonté Winery in South Africa.

This interview will be engaging to anyone interested in wine from the lens of science, farming, or just sheer pleasure. Freese was one of the American pioneers of the idea of winegrowing, or the notion that wine is made primarily in the vineyard, less so in the cellar — that to make good wine, what you need first and foremost is quality grapes. So, Freese discusses in great detail the history of learning better viticultural practices from irrigation to vine canopy management.

Martin Meeker, Oral History Center


New Release Oral History: Marshall Krause, ACLU of Northern California Attorney and Civil Liberties Advocate

The Oral History Center is pleased to release our life history interview with famed civil liberties lawyer, Marshall Krause.

Marshall Krause served as lead attorney for the ACLU of Northern California from 1960 through 1968 and subsequently served as an attorney in private practice where he continued to work civil liberties cases. Krause attended UCLA as an undergraduate and graduated from Boalt Hall, UC Berkeley School of Law after which he clerked for Judge William Denman and Justice Phil Gibson.

Marshall Krause with a Ron Boise "Kama Sutra" sculpture
Marshall Krause with a Ron Boise “Kama Sutra” sculpture

In this oral history, Mr. Krause discusses: his upbringing and education, including his time at Boalt Hall; clerkships with judges Denman and Gibson and how those experiences influenced his progressive political outlook; his tenure as ACLU staff attorney, including many of the cases he worked; his experiences arguing several cases before the United States Supreme Court; his perspective of the San Francisco counterculture of the 1960s; and his professional and legal career after leaving ACLU in 1968, which included arguing additional cases before the US Supreme Court.

This oral history is significant for any number of reasons, but it especially worthwhile for anyone interested in the current state of battles around the freedom of speech — from obscenity through political speech — and how these were decided in the courts in decades past, establishing the precedents under which we live today.

Martin Meeker


New Oral History: MaryAnn Graf, “The Life of a Wine Industry Trailblazer”

We are pleased to release our oral history interview with MaryAnn Graf. MaryAnn Graf was the first woman to graduate the University of California Davis in Food Science with a specialization in Enology, which she did in 1965. She went on to work for commercial wine operations such as Gibson and United Vintners before being hired as winemaker for Simi Winery in 1973.

After leaving Simi, she established with Marty Bannister the company Vinquiry, which provided laboratory and wine consulting services to wineries throughout California. She retired from Vinquiry in 2003. In this oral history, Graf discusses her upbringing in California’s Central Valley, her undergraduate education at UC Davis, her early jobs formulating flavored wines, her move into varietal wines at Simi and work with leaders including André Tchelistcheff, and her establishing a consulting wine laboratory. She also discusses her unique position as a woman in the wine industry at a time in which most every job was dominated by men.

This interview with MaryAnn Graf represents just our most recent interview on the California wine industry, which has been a major focus of the Oral History Center for many decades. We are excited to report that more fascinating interviews in this area are currently in production and we are actively seeking partners who might help us by sponsoring more interviews. Please contact OHC director Martin Meeker for more information: mmeeker@library.berkeley.edu


Out from the Archives: Rosalind Wiener Wyman

Out from the Archives: Rosalind Wiener Wyman

“They couldn’t believe that I could win,” Rosalind Wiener Wyman remembered about her unexpected election to the Los Angeles City Council in 1953.  Over the course of several interviews in 1977 and 1978, Wiener Wyman shared her personal and political triumphs and losses, which culminated in her oral history, “It’s a Girl”: Three Terms on the Los Angeles City Council, 1953-1965; Three Decades in the Democratic Party, 1948-1978.  Wiener Wyman’s memories as a woman politician at midcentury are part of the Oral History Center’s California Women Political Leaders Oral History Project, which documented “California women who became active in politics during the years between the passage of the women’s suffrage amendment and the…feminist movement.”

Wiener Wyman came by her passion for politics honestly.  Speaking of her parents, she reflected, “I always felt their activities and interest in politics was steeped in me. In my baby book, at two, I’m looking up at a picture of FDR [Franklin Delano Roosevelt]. Most kids in their baby book are not looking at posters of FDR.”

Rosalind Wiener Wyman as the youngest member of the Los Angeles City Council

While a student at the University of Southern California, Wiener Wyman and the campus Democratic Club  worked on Harry Truman’s 1948 campaign. But her political work began in earnest when she met her “heroine,” Helen Gahagan Douglas, then a member of Congress representing California and running an ultimately unsuccessful campaign for Senate in 1950.  Wiener Wyman was disappointed in Gahagan Douglas’s showing on the campaign trail and confronted her about it. Gahagan Douglas replied, “ ‘If you know so much about a campaign, here, here’s a card. Come see this lady and get into my campaign.’ ” Wiener Wyman took up the challenge and threw herself into this work, hanging posters and driving Gahagan Douglas to her campaign stops.  Laughing, Wiener Wyman recalled, “I remember once changing my hose in the car with her in a parade. She took mine and I took hers. Crazy things a woman candidate worries about.”

Wiener Wyman began her own political career fresh out of college.  In 1953, she ran a grassroots campaign for Los Angeles City Council that relied solely upon door-to-door conversations with her constituents, without the benefit of media coverage or traditional advertising.  Her victory over established, male candidates was such a surprise that she recalls from the night of the election:

As the bulletins were handed to [Joe] Micchice, [a local radio announcer], he said, “I’m sure that the votes are on the wrong name.”  So, he, during the night, would give my vote to Nash. Finally he put his hand over the mike–we have this on a record which is so wonderful–and he said, “Is this bulletin right?”  Or, “Who the hell is Wiener?”

After a runoff election, Wiener Wyman came out on top.  Of this dark horse winner, the Los Angeles Times declared, “It’s a girl!”

Wiener Wyman stood out as the youngest member and only woman on the Los Angeles City Council from 1953 to 1965.  Notably, Wiener Wyman did not see herself as a victim of gender discrimination; rather, she saw her break with other council members in terms of age and experience.  This, despite the fact that other city council members voted to not allow her personal leave to enjoy her honeymoon. Additionally, Wiener Wyman had to contend with the fact that “the only toilet was off the council chambers and that was for the men.”  She recalled, “That became an incredible issue that got around town. Where was I going to go to the bathroom? I thought I would die over that!”

During her time in office, Wiener Wyman famously led the charge to entice the Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles, making it the first Major League Baseball team west of the Mississippi River.  Although the displacement of Mexican American families from Chavez Ravine and the building of Dodgers Stadium was controversial then and now, Wiener Wyman defended her support for this civic boosterism and the prestige it brought to Los Angeles.  However, she conceded of her leadership on this fight: “it probably cost me some of my popularity.”

Beyond her twelve years in elected office, Wiener Wyman’s political legacy perhaps best lies in her fundraising efforts for other Democratic candidates.  During one memorable event in the backyard of her Los Angeles home, Wiener Wyman and her husband, Eugene Wyman, hosted a dinner for Democratic congressional candidates and charged $5,000 a couple, an unthinkable sum in 1972.

Rosalind Wiener Wyman’s life and career point to the many ways in which California women have and continue to engage in political life, as well as the rich collection of political history at the Oral History Center.  As we approach the hundredth anniversary of women’s suffrage, documenting the experiences of these women political leaders will become all the more important.

Amanda Tewes, Interviewer/Historian


From the Director: Oral History and the Berkeley Tradition

From the Director: Oral History and the Berkeley Tradition

On the evening of Thursday April 26th, the staff of the Oral History Center hosted our annual event in which we take the opportunity to express our gratitude to our remarkable narrators and our generous sponsors. I’ll also usually say a few words about the center and provide an overview of the scale of the work that we do for the benefit of those who might only know it just from the vantage point of being interviewed. Preparing my remarks was easy this year because 2018 happens to be a pretty special year at Berkeley: it marks the 150th anniversary of the founding of the university! What follows is an edited version of my remarks:

This evening I want to spend a few minutes sharing my thoughts on the essential role that this oral history program has played in this history of this university. See, the University of California was founded on March 23, 1868, just a little over 150 years ago. And while what we now know and love as the Oral History Center wasn’t established for another 90 years, in some very important ways, this program has been with the university since the beginning:  it has been with the university through the first and second-hand experiences of those who built the university into what it is today, transmitted over the past 64 years through recordings now archived in the Bancroft Library.

Physicist Raymond Thayer Birge, from an interview completed in 1960, conveys his knowledge of the university’s earliest years from his departmental perch: “The Department of Physics is very old. It goes back to John Le Conte, the first man appointed to the faculty of the original University. He was appointed professor of physics, he was also acting president for those first two or three years. Then later on, I after we had had two or three presidents; he was president, I think for five years, Then he got fired, although that doesn’t appear on the public record, but he actually did. [But] he remained [on faculty] until I think 1891, when he died; and he was the first member of the original faculty to die, as well as being the first one to be appointed.”

The Faculty Club, designed by famed architect Bernard Maybeck, is a treasured institution on campus. In our 1962 interview with Leon Richardson, we get a first-hand account of its founding: “Well, I was one of the founders of the Faculty Club, and I can tell you just how it began. Three or four of us saw a little (tumbled down … unoccupied) cottage on the southern rim of the campus and we said among ourselves, ‘Couldn’t we rent one of those cottages, maybe for $5 a month and then hire a caterer to come and give a luncheon to us five days a week?’ Anyway, we hired the cottage and got the caterer and it went well. From that we began to expand and expanded until the day came when we got the regents to build us a clubhouse on the campus with Maybeck as the architect.” In another passage from the Richardson interview, we learn Jane Sather gave a considerable sum to pay for the bells of Sather Tower but when money was left over, the decision was made to build the structure that has welcomed visitors to campus since 1910, now called “Sather Gate.”

Faculty Club, University of California Berkeley

William Dennes, who arrived on campus as a junior professor of philosophy in 1915, many decades later recalls what he found: “The campus was mostly like a neglected ranch: foxtail and other dried grass in August, when the term then began, ragged and for the most part not gardened, [but there was] an ivy bed around California Hall. And Benjamin Ide Wheeler was very concerned that the boys and girls shouldn’t make paths across his ivy bed!”

Although the International House movement began in New York City, Berkeley established the second house in the country and our I-House remains a lively center of intercultural exchange today. In a 1969 oral history, Harry Edmonds offers his recollections: “One frosty morning in September, 1909, I was going up the steps of the Columbia Library … when I met a Chinese student coming down. I said, ‘Good morning. ‘ As I passed on, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that he had stopped. So I stopped and went back to him. He said, ‘Thank you for speaking to me. I’ve been in New York three weeks, and you are the first person who has spoken to me’ … I went on about my errand but had no sooner gotten around back of the library that I realized something extraordinary had happened. Here was a fellow, this student, who had come from the other side of the world, … he had been here for three weeks, and no one had spoken to him. What a tragedy. I retraced my steps to find him to see if I could be of some help, but he had vanished in the crowd. That evening when I went home, I told my wife of my experience. She asked if I couldn’t ‘do something about it.’” Before too long, Edmonds played an instrumental role in founding the International House movement.

I could go on quoting from interviews describing the rise of the Free Speech Movement and Ethnic Studies on campus, examinations of the Loyalty Oath and the creation of the several new campuses of the UC System, and, yes, there is a very good account of the founding of the Oral History Center, but I’ll stop here. These quotes were drawn from much longer oral histories which are just an exceedingly small sample of the 4000 interviews in our collection that document not only the history of this university but also the region, the state, and frankly, the world.

So what is to be gained from these interviews? Are they just colorful anecdotes or do they offer something greater?

If you get the chance to listen to the interviews, the cadence of the speech found in the oral histories is strikingly different today, as often is the vocabulary. We are in the process of digitizing these interviews, so in the years to come you’ll be able to listen to their words, how they spoke those words, and begin to explore how we might gain new understandings through voice and affect. These interviews also provide information not readily available in the public record, as hinted at in Birge’s recollection of John LeConte’s career challenges. Moreover, they offer detailed accounts of everyday life — the kinds of things that provide texture to our understanding of the past but might be ephemeral and thus exist only in our memories, otherwise disappearing when we do too and not documented in writing. They reveal the moments of inspiration behind the ideas, institutions, and innovations of the university; they reveal origins often shrouded in the mystery of epiphany and immediate experience. These interviews give experts the opportunity to share their ideas, discoveries, and challenges in everyday language, thus giving non-experts the opportunity to learn about complex and fascinating things outside of jargon-filled publications, for example. And, finally, they tell us just how Sather Gate came to be! 

In 2018, 150 years since the University of California was established, I encourage you to dig into our collections and read the first person accounts of how and why Berkeley became one of the greatest universities in the world.

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


Checking in with Summer Institute Alum Marc Robinson

Checking-in with Summer Institute Alum Marc Robinson

When Marc Robinson traveled from Spokane, Washington to Berkeley, California in August 2017, it was in the name of narrative history. He came to the Advanced Oral History Summer Institute to work on his project about black student activism in the late 1960s, which was somewhere between dissertation and manuscript. He had done some interviews while earning a PhD in American Studies from Washington State University, but felt like he was just scratching the surface. Like many who understand the value of oral history in doing contemporary history, he wanted to talk to more people, get a broader range of narratives, and explore the way that some of the stories he was recording contradicted archival documents.

Marc Robinson, Summer Institute alum and, as of fall 2018, CSU San Bernardino professor

Robinson’s doctoral research was about student activism on campuses in the Northwest, particularly around those who were in the Black Student Union during a time of social and political unrest in the 1960s. He focused on two campuses, one urban — the University of Washington — and one rural — Washington State University. After doing several interviews with students who were active there, Robinson wanted to broaden his cohort of narrators to include not only black students, but their allies and the larger community of people connected to the Black Student Union, but were not students themselves.

He came to the Summer Institute looking for more training in longform life history interviews and left the program thinking deeply about what this type of interview can really provide to a researcher. “Narratives aren’t really telling the Truth, but their recollection of what happened as it pertains to them,” he says. He found that some of the narratives that he had collected challenged the materials he had found in the archives, which made him see interviewing as an opportunity to understand the complexity of memories. The program taught him to expect this complexity and see oral history as having transformative power. Another takeaway? The importance of the tech side of interviewing. “It made me think more about headphones, mics, the quality of sound, and knowing your equipment,” he says.

Since his time in Berkeley, Robinson was hired for a tenure track faculty job in the History Department at Cal State University San Bernardino (congratulations, Marc!), where he’ll start in the fall of 2018. He plans to continue working on his project and is interested in getting his students involved in the interviewing process. “It can be a really valuable teaching tool,” he says. He hopes to get his students involved in projects that illuminate local history, current events, and the community, something that Cal State San Bernardino has a track record of.

Please join us in congratulating Robinson on his new job! Look out for his book, which is on track to be out by 2020. We’re excited to see what he learns from his next round of interviews and what they can teach us about the times we are living in now.

Interested in learning more about Robinson? About the SI or joining us in 2018?

Follow him on Twitter @MarcARobinson1, and apply for the SI here.


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.


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


Out From the Archives: Caroline Service, State Department Duty in China, the McCarthy Era, and After, 1933-1977

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.

Jack and Caroline Service in China, 1934

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 Oral History Center Director: Oral History, Free Speech & Listening

From the Director: Oral History, Free Speech & Listening

Oral History Class of 2017

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.

Martin Meeker and Ed Howden

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.

Interviewer Cristina Kim with Linda Yemoto of the East Bay Regional Park District

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.

Martin Meeker
Charles B. Faulhaber Director
Oral History Center at UC Berkeley
June 2017

Highlights from the Oral History Class of 2017!