OHC’s Inaugural Book Club: A Not-So-Oral History Conversation About “Say Nothing”

As oral historians, we’ve heard a lot about the Belfast Project, which collected interviews with people who were on both sides of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, and the implications that it had for ethics, transparency, and best practices for our work. Interviews were recorded, confessions to crimes were made, and the transcripts were archived at Boston College. And then they were subpoenaed, spurring endless questions and conversations about what we can and can’t promise to our narrators. (For more details, this paper outlines the history of The Troubles and the case in detail.)

But, in the summer of 2019, Patrick Radden Keefe published Say Nothing, a book outlining the case and the use of oral history, challenging what many of us thought we knew. Here’s the description from his publisher, Penguin Random House:

“In December 1972, Jean McConville, a thirty-eight-year-old mother of ten, was dragged from her Belfast home by masked intruders, her children clinging to her legs. They never saw her again. Her abduction was one of the most notorious episodes of the vicious conflict known as The Troubles. Everyone in the neighborhood knew the I.R.A. was responsible. But in a climate of fear and paranoia, no one would speak of it. In 2003, five years after an accord brought an uneasy peace to Northern Ireland, a set of human bones was discovered on a beach. McConville’s children knew it was their mother when they were told a blue safety pin was attached to the dress–with so many kids, she had always kept it handy for diapers or ripped clothes.

Say Nothing
Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe

The Not-So-Transcript of the Not-So-Oral History of Our Conversation About Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe

Shanna Farrell: Let’s start with your favorite parts of the book.

Amanda Tewes: For me, it’s always really fascinating to hear about history from a memory perspective. This book reminded me of an extension of Portelli’s The Death of Luigi Trastulli and the idea that there are all these events but everybody disagrees on what happened. They remember it differently, but he’s bringing together a story based on not only the history, but also the memory, and how that clouds perception even today.

Martin Meeker: Admittedly, I listened to it and didn’t read it.  That’s actually one of my favorite parts—listening to it—because the gentleman who read it has this amazing Irish accent. It’s quite enjoyable. 

Roger Eardley-Pryor: It’s so good. His accent is beautiful. It put another layer of enjoyment on it. 

Meeker: But, what I really liked was that this is a story that I think a lot of oral historians think they know something about. It became clear pretty early on that it’s not only the story the oral history project, but one that really needs to be put in the context of the larger Troubles in Northern Ireland. Even though they move the project to the United States, they couldn’t they couldn’t move The Troubles out of it.

Eardley-Pryor: One of the things that I really loved about the book was the memories that it inspired in me. I studied and lived in Ireland in 1999. It was a year after The Good Friday Agreement was signed and Gerry Adams was on TV a lot representing Sinn Fein and forming this Peace Coalition. I remember walking through Belfast and one street had tri-colored Irish Flags painted on the curbs and flags that run between buildings, so you’re clearly in a Catholic space. And then you’d turn the corner and the roads are all painted red white and blue with the Union Jack with British flags flying between the houses. And, what I also loved about this book is how you follow individual characters through their own journey with The Troubles. That was just so Illuminating. 

Meeker: Shanna, did you have a favorite part of it? 

Farrell: My favorite thing about this book was the pacing of it. I really liked how he doled out the stories, which is something that I like in fiction a lot. One chapter tells one story and then you pause and go to another character. 

Meeker: I noticed how it unfolded, too, which worked really well for a nonfiction book. The historical actors are not usually characters, right? They’ll appear, they’ll make their contribution to history, and then they’ll disappear. But the people in this book get woven back into the story. You’re introduced to Dolours Price and Ed Moloney and Brendan Hughes early on and then they’ll come back in. You really get us a sense of their role in this long, unfolding history that covers decades. It’s really artfully done. 

Farrell: It really engaged me. It was definitely a page turner.

Meeker: It would be interesting to talk to the author, Patrick Radden Keefe, to figure out how he came up with the process of integrating the story of the tapes into the book. Did he decide beforehand that they would be a pivotal part of the story? You rarely get a nonfiction writer to spend that much time talking about the research methodology. But as it turns out, the research is a big part of the story. 

Farrell: Yeah, and super dramatic. I think that’s why it’s part of the story. That was actually one of my questions. Could this have been a book without oral history and the existence of the Belfast Project?

Tewes: With this particular book, no, because he does seem really taken with the idea of memory and the differing accounts of who said what when. The same person could have several different accounts. It seems to have been an important part of the book. So oral history, I think, made it that much richer. I’d like to know like how he decided to use oral history and at what point he decided to drive the narrative by adding dialogue to these characters, which he’s really taking it out of previous conversations and oral history. 

Meeker: That’s really fascinating to me. 

Eardley-Pryor: I was surprised at the end where they describe the sources. I thought he only had access to Brendan Hughes’ and one other person’s actual transcripts, right?

Farrell: That one of my big questions. I wasn’t sure whose oral histories he had access to. That brings me to my next question: what did you know about this case or project before the book, and how did this challenge what you thought you knew?

Tewes: As Martin said, I think this is something a lot of oral historians think they know. I remember when the case happened in 2013. I had taken my IRB test in 2015 and it was already part of the curriculum about why this was a problematic approach to doing oral history. So, I’d read a few articles and thought I understood what was going on. But, clearly there was a lot more happening behind the scenes and the politics in Ireland were just as important as what I was reading about in Boston College’s approach to the project. I feel like the way oral historians had discussed this was really divorced from the larger context. 

Meeker: Yeah, I’d agree with that. I think that my perspective around the mainstream oral history discourse about this seemed to be: “How dare they try to take these sacrosanct interviews that are under seal? We need to marshal our resources and fight.” Oral historians tended to link it to academic freedom, which I always thought to be a strange argument, but, I followed it. This book shows that the story is far more complex than that and the behavior of those who were running this program was pretty reprehensible. It is a really important case study, I think, for graduate students or anyone interested in oral history dealing with anything that’s sensitive to know that you can’t promise anonymity in this way. 

Eardley-Pryor: I had the same reaction to how this book flipped my understanding of the ethical issues involved in the oral history case. Initially, I thought how dare the British government come in and take advantage of this project when the people who participated in it were protected.  The ethical flip is actually that the project itself was structured in a way that they couldn’t protect the narrators. The real challenge was how the project was organized, not how the British government demanded access to it. 

Tewes: The book outlines what the people were promised, but where’s the official document?

Eardley-Pryor: They had different points of view, right? The Unionist interviewer thought for sure that everything was sealed tight until everyone was dead. The IRA interviewer, McIntyre, seemed to say it’s when the individual dies that we can release their transcripts. That’s totally different for people involved in the same project, right? 

Farrell: Right. It was a little fuzzy if they were going to release the project when everyone interviewed died, but when Brendan Hughes died they released his tapes and that seemed to be a violation of what they were told. But one passage [on page 286] says, “The men had also never decided just who would be allowed to access the interviews. The conversations had always been about ‘the future students of Boston College.’ But the history department at the college had not known, until the publication of Moloney’s book, that the project was happening at all. In fact, the archive had been so secret that almost nobody at Boston College, apart from [Tom] Hachey and [Bob] O’Neill, knew that it existed.”

Meeker: This brings up an interesting point. The project was always with the library, not the History Department. I’m not sure the History Department should even be brought into it. I would hate if there was an ethical problem in our office and someone from the History Department was interviewed about it. They’d say that they are the historians on campus and didn’t know about it.

Tewes: I just wanted to point out that they did not actually release the tapes when Brendan Hughes died. They released a book written about the transcript of the tapes. When we start getting technical about subpoenas for transcripts and tapes, it’s like there was always an edited version they were presenting.

Eardley-Pryor: Just as this entire book is an edited individual subjective take on the topic. They only had access to three oral histories of the whole project. All of the storytelling in this book is based on Keefe’s own research interviewing the actual people who worked on the project. He interviews Anthony McIntyre and talks about having dinners with him and his wife.

Farrell: Yeah, there were two interviewers on the project, one was who was supposed to interview the British Loyalists.

Eardley-Pryor: The British Terrorists.

Farrell: And the other interviewed the Republicans, so it was the IRA versus the RUC. 

Eardley-Pryor: McIntyre did the Irish interviews and it seemed like the author of this book had a real buddy-buddy relationship with him, sitting down to dinner with him and his wife, having cocktails together, asking pointed questions like “This is my theory, but what actually happened?” Keefe writes that McIntyre wouldn’t say yes or no, but wouldn’t deny things.

Meeker: But was there a record of exactly what the project leads said to the people who are being interviewed? I vaguely remember there being something in this book about that, but he does talk about the ambiguity. He says [on page 286], “in fact, there were quite a few fairly important points upon which their original conception of the project had been ambiguous. For instance, Wilson McArthur, Anthony McIntyre’s counterpart, who conducted all the interviews in the loyalist community, had been under the impression, as he was gathering the oral histories, that none of the interviews would be made public until all of the participants had died. He was caught off guard by the news that Moloney intended to publish Voices from the Grave just a few years after the last interviews had interviews had concluded, thereby revealing the existence of the archive when the first participants had died, rather than waiting decades until the last ones had.” I wonder if there were forms or if this was just ‘this is how we’re going to do the project’ and maybe they forgot to mention part of it.

Farrell: Well, there was a legal release. But I think one of the arguments that people make against the people who organized the project was that they weren’t trained oral historians. And that’s a huge problem. 

Eardley-Pryor: It’s a big problem. 

Meeker: It’s also interesting to think about sources. Gerry Adams wouldn’t talk to him.

Farrell: That’s not a surprise. He had to rely on the members of the IRA who served alongside Gerry Adams. He had the complete unredacted transcript of the Brendan Hughes interview, which Keefe said became an indispensable source. But apart from that oral history, no one would share any of the interviews with him. He never had access to the oral histories of Dolours Price. 

Eardley-Pryor: So he only had access to Brendan Hughes’s oral history and that’s it? 

Farrell: That’s it. Everything else was like telephone through McIntyre.

Tewes: Another researcher did an interview with Dolours Price, so he got the transcript from her.

Meeker: He did do interviews on his own. He interviewed the McConville kids.

Eardley-Pryor: And people who did their own memoirs. My sense from reading it was that he had done a ton of outside reading of other people’s own stories within the IRA.

Farrell: Here’s an interesting follow-up from the “Notes on Source” section: “Several years ago, Boston College started informing people who had participated in the project that they could have their interviews back. The university, burned by its own carelessness in handling such incendiary material, wanted to jettison its responsibility as custodian of the tapes. Many of the participants took the university up on it. One of them was Ricky O’Rawe. One day, he received a box from Boston College containing the recordings and transcripts of his conversations with McIntyre from more than a decade earlier. At first, O’Rawe could not decide what to do with them. Then he had an idea. He took the CDs and transcripts into the study in his house and lit a fire in the fireplace. Then he opened a nice bottle of Bordeaux and poured himself a glass…O’Rawe tossed his testimony into the flames. Then he drank the Bordeaux and watched it burn.” This is very descriptive. 

Eardley-Pryor: That’s why I love his writing.

Tewes: That’s crazy because Ricky [O’Rawe] wrote his own book [Blanketmen]. So yes, he had his own perspective, which was maybe pared down a bit, but he clearly was comfortable sharing some level of his interview. 

Eardley-Pryor: What was in those tapes that he wasn’t comfortable with?

Tewes: Right? 

Eardley-Pryor: That’s the curious part. 

Meeker: I think it’s also like the title of the book: say nothing. Both the IRA and the Loyalist sides were sworn to secrecy under the penalty of execution, which was the whole reason that Jean McConville got in trouble to begin with, true or not. All of these people were shown to be talking about secret things and recording them. 

Tewes: I’m glad you brought that up because we’ve been talking about the legal and ethical problems on the project, but as a narrator, I’m wondering if they felt comfortable with the person who is interviewing them and what their intention for participating in this project. For Dolours Price, I am a little bit convinced that there is some sort of self-destructive purging of the sins that she hoped it would come out. In many ways, she seemed to be tempting fate, even at the end, before she passed away. 

Meeker: Like she would admit to a murder? 

Tewes: Yes

Farrell: Because she did on tape.

Tewes: Yeah.

Eardley-Pryor: In the second interview especially. There’s a desire for truth.

Tewes: I felt both Brendan Hughes and Dolours Price were upset by people saying nothing. Gerry Adams was no longer part of the IRA and now there are different version of history. 

Eardley-Pryor: And they are Catholics, too. I wonder if there’s some sort of confessional aspect to it as well.

Farrell: Or Like atonement?

Meeker: Oh, interesting.

Farrell: It’s confession. 

Tewes: Quite literally.

Meeker: Yeah, there wasn’t a mention about relationship between interviewing and confession. 

Farrell: No, but that would have been really interesting. 

Meeker: I’ve always thought about that connection. That’s so Foucault: the pleasure of the interview as confession. 

Tewes: I don’t know if this is a question that you were thinking about Shanna, but I was really struck as an interviewer trying to understand someone like McIntyre’s thought process behind the interviews. Keefe mentions that McIntyre was not an impartial person in this situation, and he was never meant to be. I wonder what would have happened if there had been an impartial interviewer, or at least someone a bit outside the system, in that room with them. Would those stories have come out? Would this have become a legal case?

Eardley-Pryor: It’s a really good question. Could the Belfast Project have happened if there were impartial participants doing the interviews?

Meeker: I think that’s an important question. Would any of these people have agreed to be interviewed in the first place? 

Farrell: Has this book changed the way that you think about oral history?

Eardley-Pryor: It changed the way I think about narrating a story using oral history. This book was great. I thought Keefe told a great story that was a page-turner based on really great research.

Tewes: I have a greater appreciation for the IRB process. I was on the other side of this debate before reading this book, actually. I thought the IRB review was defunct for oral history because it didn’t understand what we do and we have our own set of ethics. But, if an IRB panel had heard any of this from Boston College, I know they would have shut it down. They could have prevented a lot of the issues that came up after. I realized it’s not only for people who aren’t familiar with oral history, but for people who are trying to work outside the system that is set up to protect our narrators, and ourselves, legally.

Meeker: This contributed to thinking that I’ve been engaged with about oral history and the feeling I’m getting from a lot of my interviews lately. I feel like there is an increasing concern with image. People are unwilling or uninterested to discuss more controversial things or things that could possibly be controversial at some point in the future. Some of my interviews, despite my best efforts, are turning into public relations exercises. That’s not the kind of work that I want to do.

 Farrell: It’s made me think a little bit more about the agency of oral history and the power of being a narrator, what that experience is like for them. It’s almost like oral history was a character in the book because it had such strong agency to create a lot of these things. It’s more powerful than I think sometimes we give it credit for, mostly because this is what we do every day. It made me take a step back and think about the potential of projects that we could do here at the Oral History Center. 


OHC Advanced Oral History Alum Spotlight: Meagan Gough

by Shanna Farrell

@shanna_farrell

Meagan Gough attended the Oral History Center’s Advanced Summer Institute in August 2017. We recently caught up with her to see how her time with us helped her develop her project around the Semá:th First Nation in British Columbia, who an indigenous to Canada.

Meagan Gough
Meagan Gough

Q: You attended the Summer Institute in 2017. What were you working on when you joined us?

MG: The Semá:th Traditional Use and Occupancy Project (“TUOS”) invited the participation of Semá:th community members from the Semá:th First Nation in British Columbia, Canada to document their connection to, and care-taking responsibilities over, natural and cultural resources within Semá:th traditional Territory and beyond. The TUOS project combines oral history interviews, GIS Mapping historical research and community engagement and events to accomplish the following goals:

  • To record and map how access, use and occupancy of important cultural and natural resources is determined and understood by a diverse group of Semá:th Knowledge Holders made up of men, women, Elders, youth, political and spiritual leadership.
  • To add layers to the existing historical record about Semá:th culture, history and identity through the transmission of two main types of Semá:th oral history: Sqwélqwel (genealogy or “true news”) and sxwōxwiyám (stories of long ago, origin stories).
  • Engage Semá:th Knowledge holders in vision for future caretaking of land, water and air to reflect Semá:th history, culture and protocol.
  • Assert Semá:th Right and Title through policy and practice, including Specific Land Claims.
  • Celebrate and promote Semá:th cultural identity, knowledge
  • Strengthen the capacity of the Semá:th Lands & Resources Department to respond to development referrals in Semá:th Territory.
  • Draw upon community input to create and support opportunities for lands-based activities and programs in the community.
  • Support seeking solutions to the mental health and suicide crisis in community using lands-based teaching and oral history.

 

Q: How did your time at the Summer Institute inform your project?

MG: Participation in the Advanced Institute provides  a unique opportunity for general learning, reflection and engagement with oral history methods, practices and projects but also to workshop our own individual projects. This allowed us as participants to move between the macro and big picture methods, debates and teachings of oral history which inform our work and the practical individual application of this knowledge into practice in our own projects.

I found this to be a deeply enriching experience, particularly because my small group was comprised of scholars and researchers from diverse disciplines. As a scholar who draws simultaneously from disciplines of cultural anthropology, history and oral history, the input provided to me about my project during our small group presentation was extremely helpful and came into practical use since. Given the central importance of oral record in the Semá:th community,  I came to the Advanced Institute with questions about ideas of how to engage community youth and elders using oral history interviews and storytelling to draw upon this record.

One suggestion was an Elder-Youth storytelling circle. A version of this became one of the central activities in Phase 3 of our project. Our Elder-Youth Storytelling event invited Elders and Youth to take turns in the roles of speaker and listener: We matched Youth and Elders and first the Elders shared lands based knowledge and oral history. The youth then had a two week period to reflect upon and interpret this oral history and present it back to the Elders and the group via a medium of their choice: writing, poetry, spoken word, song, dance, performance, and visual arts were all encouraged. The Elders then assumed the roles of listener. The circle had multiple goals: to fortify relations between Elders and Youth, to provide a unique opportunity for the transmission of traditional and historical cultural knowledge, and to encourage the exploration of the dialogical elements of such an exchange. How did the youth interpret the stories? Did the speakers feel their stories were understood as they intended them? The Youths’ art projects are currently displayed in the Semá:th Band office.

The second primary way that participation in the Institute informed our project was the inspiration I took from some of our key presenters, especially the Oakland Chinese Community Oral history project. This is where I learned about the concept of a Storymap – a digital multimedia platform to preserve and present community maps. In 2018 and Phase 3 of TUOS project, we commenced the creation of our own Storymap. Through the use of oral histories and photographs shared via TUOS interviews with Semá:th Knowledge Holders, the Semá:th Genealogy Mapping Storymap was aimed at using geneology to map the movement of ancestors of the Semá:th First Nation.

 

Q: What is the status of the Semá:th Traditional Use Study now?

MG: We have received successful funding from BCCI our funding agency, and commenced Phase 4 of the TUOS project. To date, we have recorded over 25 oral history interviews with Semá:th Knowledge Holders, as well mapped over 500 traditional use sites. We have created a database to archive and preserve this information so it may be used by Lands Department staff to respond to the overwhelming number of referrals from government and industry involving Semá:th Lands. We have also conducted historical and archival research and created a Semá:th historical photo collection, also housed in the database. We have hosted a number of community events which sought to seek input from Knowledge Holders as well as to keep them informed about the status of the project.

 

Q: You’ve described the Summer Institute having ripple effects on your work. Can you tell us more about this?

MG: My participation in the Advanced Institute was, without exaggeration, by far the most enriching professional experience I have had in terms of a course or workshop. Having practiced oral history interviewing for over 15 years, I came away generally feeling inspired, refreshed and also extremely appreciative of having my practical workshop questions answered. I was able to continue to build upon the input of my small group colleagues to integrate it into our project. I made professional contacts from around the world, some of whom have gone on to become friends. The ability to workshop our projects with a small group truly allows a deep insight into the workings of other oral history projects and by virtue of listening how technical, ethical and practical elements are addressed and resolved. The ripples of my participation are evident in tangible form via the practical application of my learning at the Institute into the creation of the Storymap as well as our Elder-Youth Storytelling Circle Event.

 

Q: What’s next for the project? What’s next for you?

MG: We are currently in Phase 4 of our project, we are building another “layer” of our Storymap this year which maps how traditional caretaking responsibilities extend far beyond the borders of reserve (reservation) lands across the Province, country and Internationally into the United States. We are also contributing chapters to a forthcoming publication exploring hidden histories of British Columbia. (Working title, stay tuned!) The interviews are being used in a number of capacities, asserting Right and Title to Lands, including specific land claims, on reserve lands based policy, negotiation with industry and Government.

For myself, I have just become a first time mom, so life is busy and I am full of joy and gratitude. As I write this now, I consider it a dispatch from “babyland” a unique space of the spirit and one which provides a new lens on everything in life. I hope to share the beauty and power of listening, of stories and of learning with my baby as she grows. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Berkeley Institute and all those whose hard work make it come to fruition. “All things Flow, Nothing Stands Still” – there is always something more to learn, another story to listen to, another perspective to understand. Oral history is endlessly inspiring!

 

 

 

 


David Lamelas: A Pioneer in Conceptual Art

New Transcript Release: David Lamelas

Signaling of Three Objects
Signaling of Three Objects by David Lamelas, 1968

In 2017, the Getty Center initiated the exhibit Pacific Standard Time: LA / LA, a multi-gallery art exhibition throughout the Los Angeles area that showcased the interconnections between Latin America and the Los Angeles. In its continuing partnership with the OHC, the Getty Trust sponsored oral histories with a few of the artists featured in the year-long exhibition. David Lamelas was one of the selected artists.

Born in Buenos Aires in 1946, Lamelas would earn international recognition over his career as one of the leading pioneers of conceptual art. He graduated from the Academia Nacional de Bellas Artes in 1963 and soon became a key member of the Instituto Torcuatro di Tella, a group that stood at the center of Argentina’s avant-garde scene. With political turmoil on the rise, he left Argentina in 1968 to study at Saint Martin’s School of Art in London, stopping along the way to represent his home country at the famed Venice Biennial. There his installation, The Office of Information about the Vietnam War at Three Levels, garnered wide praise and attention, introducing Europe to the themes of time, communication, and media that Lamelas would explore in much of his work in the decades to come.

Over the next fifty years, Lamelas continued to push the boundaries of conceptual art. From photography and installations to an impressive array of films, he continually found new ways to explore the topics of media and popular culture, as well as his favorite themes of time and space. He also has continued to be a “citizen of the world,” often splitting his time between Los Angeles, Buenos Aires, and Europe. Indeed, such travel offered ample inspiration for his work. It also made him a fitting choice for the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time: LA / LA exhibition.

For Lamelas’ full oral history transcript, please visit our website.


Episode 1 of OHC’s Berkeley Remix Explores the Connection Between Private and Public Land in the East Bay

Episode 1: You Really Love Your Land, Don’t You: Expansion of the East Bay Regional Park District

Set in the parks of the East Bay hills, the Hidden Heroes podcast season is about people who have made a difference: fighting fires, breaking gender barriers, preserving the land. 

In season 5 of the Berkeley Remix, we’re diving into the long history of the East Bay Regional Park District, which was founded in 1934. All of the episodes are set in the East Bay parks and are about people who’ve made a difference. Some are stories that you’re already familiar with, but haven’t heard quite like this. Over the course of three episodes, we’ll explore the park district’s integral role in fighting the 1991 Oakland Hills Fire, of being on the forefront of gender equality in the workplace, and how the districts efforts to preserve land benefited the public — through the lens of the local equestrian community.

The first episode of the season dives into public use of the park. Since the district was formed in 1934, it has acquired 125,000 acres that span 73 parks. The episode begins with the role that one special volunteer-turned-employee played in convincing ranchers and landowners to sell their property to be preserved by the park district. Without the work of this man, and others like him, the  public would not have access to this land. This includes the local equestrian community, whom we hear from in the rest of the episode, exploring how the district became a haven for horse lovers. 

All episodes feature interviews from the East Bay Regional Park District Oral History Project. A special thank you to the East Bay Regional Park District, especially Beverly Ortiz and Brenda Montano. Photos taken by Bob Walker from the Bob Walker Collection of the Oakland Museum, courtesy of the East Bay Regional Park District. This episode includes interviews with Judy Irving, Don Staysa, Judi Bank, and Becky Carlson All music by Blue Dot Sessions: “Dorica Theme” and “A Palace of Cedar.”

To learn more about these interviews, visit the Oral History Center’s website.

This episode was produced by Shanna Farrell and Francesca Fenzi

A special thanks to the East Bay Regional Park District, Beverly Ortiz, and Brenda Montano

The following is a written version of the episode.

 

Narrator:

There’s 730 photographs in this collection. Pelicans, waterfalls right in Tilden. I didn’t even know there were waterfalls in Tilden.

Francesca Fenzi:

Yeah, that looks like something out of Yosemite, not in downtown Berkeley.

Narrator: 

Yeah. Taken in February 1986. Aerial shots of the city. This is incredible. It’s quite the collection

Narrator:

We’re looking at the Oakland Museum of California’s website and that’s producer Francesca Fenzi you hear in the background. The page we have open looks a bit like an Instagram account — rows and rows of beautiful landscape photos.  There’s aerial images of Tilden park, shots from Pleasanton Ridge, the Black Diamond Mines, Mount Diablo. All bay area landscapes. All taken by a man named Bob Walker.

Judy Irving:

Right. Bob Walker started out—he came west from the Midwest. He came west basically just for an adventure.

Narrator:

That’s Judy Irving, a documentary filmmaker who met Bob in the 1980s.

Judy Irving:

He started out taking pictures and walking his dog. His photographs are still on the wall at the park district headquarters. [They were really impressed with his photographs.] They’re fabulous. 

Narrator:

Judy met Bob when she was making a film about the greenbelt for the East Bay Regional Park District. She saw a few of his photographs, and knew he was perfect for her project.

Judy Irving:

I went over to his apartment on Clayton Street in the Haight, and on his wall were two framed photographs that he had taken in the East Bay parks, hills and trees, in the fall and in the spring. Beautiful, same frame. I’d been wanting to do seasonal special effects in this greenbelt movie. I wanted to do spring, and six months later I wanted to do fall, and I wanted to try a long, long dissolve between the two. This was something that nobody else had tried. I just thought it would be beautiful, and in the East Bay parks with their fabulous, golden rolling hills, you could film a scene in the dry fall and watch it green up in the spring. All these things are in, now, the greenbelt film. It’s our seasonal special effects sequence, and Bob Walker did most of them.

Narrator:

By the time Judy found Bob, he was like the East Bay’s equivalent of historic photographer Ansel Adams. Bob had spent years photographing the natural bay area landscape, and was now an expert.

Judy Irving:

He had a good sense of where things were because he had been there. He had these huge maps, and he’d come home from every trip and he’d make little marks and little pinpoint areas.

Narrator:

He also cared deeply about the land. He’d take people like Judy, who were interested in his work, on walks through the scenery of his photographs.

Judy Irving:

He got so active, he would take folks to an area that he thought should be bought by the park district. Everybody would fall in love with this area, and then he’d give them postcards to write to the district. They would be stamped already. They’d write them. He started his own lobbying campaign to get these places bought.

Narrator:

This was Bob’s sales pitch: Isn’t this place beautiful? Wouldn’t you like to see it preserved? Help me make this public land.

And it worked.

 Judy Irving:

He was always positive. He was always civil. He did make a lot of friends in the East Bay and he was responsible for a lot of land being purchased.

Narrator:

At the time, much of the land Bob photographed still belonged to private ranchers. But Bob’s charm, and the fact that he was constantly taking photos, made him unlikely allies.

Judy Irving: 

He would go to the ranch house, he’d knock on the door, and he’d say, “Hi. I’m Bob Walker. I just took a picture of your ranch.” Or, he would do an aerial at that same beautiful time of day, of their land. They’d look at it and say “Wow, that’s beautiful. Yeah, I recognize that.” He’d say—I’m really shortening what his rap was—but, he’d say, “You really love your land, don’t you? You’d love it to continue to look like this forever, wouldn’t you?’ And they’d say, “Yeah. Come on in, have a cup of coffee.” He’d say, “Well, you should really consider selling your ranch to the park district because then it would be this way forever, and it would be a legacy. It would be your legacy and you could be proud of that.”

 Narrator:

Little by little, Bob was collecting bits of land for the growing park district. Eventually Bob Doyle, the park supervisor in charge of purchasing new land, decided to hire him on as an official contractor.

Judy Irving:

Bob Walker just was constantly telling Bob Doyle, this ranch is for sale, that ranch is for sale. He was out there, walking around with his dog, and he often knew what was for sale before Bob Doyle did. So, that was Bob. He was really intense and focused.

Narrator:

There was a reason for Bob’s urgency.

Judy Irving:

He was in a hurry because he had known since 1985 that he was HIV positive. And so, he was on a roll. He wanted to save as much land as he could before he got sick. He just knew that the clock was ticking, and I wish I had that kind of fire under me all the time because I saw how much he got done.

Narrator:

I’m Shanna Farrell, and you’re listening to the Berkeley Remix, a podcast from the Oral History Center at the University of California, Berkeley. 

This season we’re heading to the East Bay Regional Park District for a three part mini-series. All of the episodes are set in the East Park parks and are about people who’ve made a difference. Some are stories that you’re already familiar with, but haven’t heard like this. Other stories you might not know, but should. We’re calling this series “Hidden Heroes.”

In this episode, we’ll be exploring the connection between public and private land, and the communities that have formed out of this relationship. We’ll be featuring interviews from our East Bay Regional Park District Parkland Oral History project, which is archived in our home at The Bancroft Library.

I’m a Bay Area resident, but, like Bob Walker, I’m a transplant. I’m from New York, and I rode horses growing up. When I moved here six years ago, I was looking to start riding again. I began with a Google search. The first thing to pop up was a stable in Las Trampas. Right in my backyard.

I was surprised to learn that there was a stable so close to me, a short drive from my house in downtown Berkeley. I didn’t even need to cross a bridge to get there!

It turns out I’m not the first person to have thought about this. For 85 years, since its founding in 1934, the East Bay Regional Park District has become a sort of urban safe-haven for horse people.

Like Bob Walker and myself, Judi Bank was a transplant to California. She moved here in the 1960s. And, like me, she had been riding horses since she was a little girl. 

Bank:

Horses are very special creatures.  …They all have personalities, and they’re all different, and they’re just wonderful creatures.

Narrator:

She made her way to the East Bay, where she rode her horse, Bucky, behind the Oakland Riding Academy, which was owned by another Bob – Bob Lorimer.

Bank:

He had people boarding there who wanted a jump course. He had some sort of arrangement with East Bay Regional Park, but they basically went to the hill behind the Oakland Riding Academy. You’d sign a release. You’d pay him ten dollars. He’d give you the key, and you could go up there.

Narrator:

Eventually, Bob Lorimer moved, leaving the Riding Academy behind. That’s when Judi had an idea.

Bank:

It was about that time that we needed a facility for this regional rally. 

Narrator:

She wanted a place to hold a type of horse show called a three-day event. 

Bank:

Originally it was the test of a military horse, and there are three phases. One is dressage, which is fine control of your horse, and that would demonstrate that you could control your horse in a parade and in other maneuvers. Then the big part of it was cross-country, where you would go across rough terrain, you would jump strange fences, to show that the horse was bold and brave and fast, and would be a good field horse. You finished up on the same horse in the ring with knockdown fences, and that would show that the horse could represent this country in horse shows. Your whole score is compiled from the three phases, to get to the horse that had done the best overall.

Narrator:

She reached out to the park district. 

Bank:

We made arrangements with East Bay Regional Park to use it for a week.

Narrator:

A week turned into another week, and then another. Judi and her equestrian friends struck a deal with park district. 

Bank:

We went up there with the pony club parents, and we kind of cleaned up some of the fences. We brought in portable stalls that come in units of twenty, ten stalls on either side, and we put two of them on the longer court, and we put one out on the shorter court, so we were able to handle as many as thirty horses. 

Narrator:

This newly improved area became known as the hunt field.

While the hunt field was being built, another mid-West transplant was discovering the wonders of horseback-riding in the east bay parks. 

Carlson:

When I came out here, we looked for someplace where I could rent horses, and we found Las Trampas Stables, which is in the Las Trampas Regional Wilderness Park. They had a program where people could volunteer, clean stalls, feed horses, and trail guide, and get to go out riding.

Narrator:

That’s Becky Carlson. She moved to Alameda in 1983 during her enlistment in the Navy. She quickly began to volunteer at Las Trampas, the same place that popped up in my Google search.

Becky took every opportunity she could to get out and ride on her horse. 

Carlson:

Casey, actually. She was a six-year-old quarter horse, 

Narrator:

She and Casey went on long trail rides, exploring remote areas of the park district. 

Carlson:

Well, Las Trampas actually had a number of set trails. They went out the Valley Trail and back along the Creek Trail, they went up Bollinger Trail and around on the hill, or up to Elderberry and down the center.

Narrator:

She volunteered with Las Trampas for 17 years, part of which was spent on the mounted patrol. 

Carlson:

Malary Anderson was the police officer who was organizing that at the time.

Narrator:

Malary set up a series of obstacles for riders to pass to ensure that their horses could handle situations that might come up while they were patrolling the parks.

Carlson:

Malary insisted that it start off that everyone who is in the patrol first had to pass her entrance test with their horse. You had to open and close a gate. You had to pick something up, not necessarily from the ground, but somebody had to hand you something and you had to hand it back, from both sides of your horse. You had to mount and dismount from both sides. You had to do a trail ride with Malary, and do trail obstacles that were there, hills, doing hills in a safe manner, go up and down, going under trees and through brush, and that kind of stuff. She put down a tarp you were supposed to walk over, to go by the nasty plastic bags. You had to load and unload in a trailer. As she’d find things, she’d add them or take them away and whatever.  

Narrator:

Becky tried to get another one of her horses, Whiskey, used to these obstacles.

Carlson:

What got me interested in that was my little Morgan. He needed a job. He needed a job badly. My little Morgan would never walk on the blue tarp. He looked at it and he said, “I don’t know what’s under that. I’m going around it,” and he walked around it. 

Narrator:

Becky remembers the first time they took the test.

Carlson: 

Whiskey, he failed. He failed miserably the first time we tried. She had plastic bags on a stick, and she was waving them, and he just went, cowabunga, goodbye, [laughs] said, “I was not going to be anywhere near that.” 

Narrator:

They ended up passing the second time around, and together becky and whiskey patrolled desolate areas of the park.

Carlson:

If we went into Anthony Chabot we’d generally run into people, because that’s in Oakland and lots of people using that park. But, Las Trampas, unless you’re down in the valley, you very rarely see anybody, which is another reason for us to be there, because we were letting the park know what was going on in that park. There are places in Las Trampas I have been that I swear there has never been a ranger there.

Narrator:

While Becky was keeping an eye on remote parts of the park, Judi Bank was making progress on the three-day event with the park district. 

Bank:

I worked with East Bay Regional Park to make the jumps safe. I found telephone poles. We capped all of these stone structures either with a railroad tie or the telephone poles, and the wall we couldn’t do much about, so we made that an oxer, which means that we put a rail in front of it and a rail behind it so that the horse would jump the rails and not the wall. There was a nice variety of jumps up there. We had ditches. We had water jump. We had post and rail. We had banks. It was a great, fun place.

Narrator:

Judi had designed the jump course while her friends were recruiting riders to compete on it. They got sponsored by a couple professional organizations like the Metropolitan Horseman’s Association and the United States Combined Training Association. With this support, the events were official. 

Bank:

Never underestimate a small group of dedicated people. 

Narrator:

These events brought together equestrians from all over the east bay. 

Bank:

I think at one point, Contra Costa County had the most concentrated number of horses [laughs] in the state, or something like that.

Narrator:

Riders like Judi and Becky had brought horse culture in the East Bay from a casual past-time to formal sporting event. But they weren’t the only ones embracing equestrian life. Horse sporting culture had begun to mingle with the existing ranch culture of the East Bay.

Don Staysa grew up in Livermore in the 1950s and remembers his first introduction to ranch animals.

Staysa:

Livermore, at that time, was basically an agriculture town, other than the rad lab, the Lawrence Laboratory. It was all farms and ranches surrounded the city. There was the stockyards, where they used to load the cattle on the trains, were right down on Main Street now, where Safeway is. That was all stockyards. We used to play in them when we were kids. I can remember the cattle coming in and every boy in the world was sitting on fences around like blackbirds, trying to see what was going on, look at the cowboys and the ranchers.

Narrator:

Don was fascinated by ranch life. His first jobs were picking hay, mending equipment and feeding animals.

Staysa:

I always worked outside with my hands. Nothing very glamorous; fixing fence and cleaning out stalls, but stuff that needed to be done. That’s basically was my childhood. 

Narrator:

Don’s old school, raised on hard work. As he got older, he channeled the lessons of his early ranch experiences into another tough job: in the U.S. Marine Corps. He enlisted before meeting his wife Lynn.

Staysa:

Lynn’s brother was an amateur bull rider, a very good bull rider, and he talked me into coming to some jackpot rodeos with him. I don’t know if it was as luck would have it or bad luck would have it, I rode the bull and I really liked the excitement. It had flashes of the Marine Corps in it to me; the excitement, the adrenalin high. I thought, well, I’m going to take up this sport. I started riding amateur and jackpot bull riding.

Narrator:

Don hadn’t owned horses or cattle growing up, but he was used to being around them, and now he threw himself into rodeo culture.

Staysa:

Rodeo cowboy is a way of life. Rodeo cowboy and a ranch cowboy are to different things. Now it’s more prevalent, the distinction between them, than it was then because a lot of rodeo cowboys were ranch hands also. But, the rodeo has become a professional business, and now the cowboys—and I’m not saying that they’re not ranch hands, some of them—but a lot of them are just great athletes that participate in the sport.

Narrator:

And, in terms of athletics, Don was pretty good.

Staysa:

I thought maybe I could be good enough to make a living out of that. I talked to some big name cowboys, to one champion cowboy, “Would you take a look at me? I think I can make it on this, but I need you to tell me, give me the heads up, because I’m not going to continue to break my body up and not make a living.

Narrator:

He asked an older bull rider to watch and level with him. Could he do this?

Staysa:

“You know, you can win some money and you’ll do good around here in the smaller venue, but you can’t make a living off of it.”

Narrator:

It was a hard moment for Don, but one he’s grateful for looking back. Bull riding is a brutal sport, filled with broken bones and torn muscles — or worse. And he and Lynn were just starting a family.

Staysa:

I quit riding bulls, because I didn’t need it for that. I wanted to make a living which is probably why I can still walk. [laughter]

Narrator:

Don’s bull riding days may have been done, but that didn’t mean he’d given up on rodeo culture. He decided it was something he wanted to preserve for future generations.

Staysa:

I had rode in Livermore and knew some of the board members and ranchers that were on the board at the time, and so, I became a volunteer there at the rodeo.

Narrator:

Don joined the Livermore Rodeo Association — which got its start in the early 1900s. 

Staysa:

During World War I, the Red Cross put a toll on each city that they had to pay a certain amount of money to provide the services for the boys over in France and Germany. Our town was small; a little agriculture town. They didn’t have any money. They put on a rodeo to raise the money, and that’s how our rodeo started. 

Narrator:

Don loved that story — and that the mission the rodeo association represented. It was a way to raise money for the country, build community, and preserve local heritage.

Staysa:

We’re carrying on the tradition of what the rodeo was started for, and that’s important to me. We’re also providing history. We’re giving little kids a chance to see what the West was a little like, you know? They get around the animals, and we have our rodeo set up that there’s petting zoos, there’s contact with the cowboys and cowgirls, and it just—it’s a good way to give kids a different aspect of what life is, and I think it’s important to continue, especially when you’re getting into a bedroom community where you don’t get out, you don’t get to do this stuff. We give them a chance.

Narrator:

I can relate to this. Growing up, horses gave me a chance to get outside, build skills that shaped my identity, and become more confident in myself. It also gave me an opportunity to bond with horses, which are special animals. When I interviewed Judi Bank, she also said something that I could relate to. 

Bank:

Horses are wonderful animals for young people to learn how to take care of them, to groom them, to take care of them, to learn how to ride.

Narrator:

Talking to Judi and Don, I realized that it isn’t just about his or my or her childhood. They’re trying to preserve the lessons of animals, and land, and history for generations to come. The Livermore Rodeo just celebrated its 100th year anniversary — but Don says the work can’t stop there.

Staysa:

Well, everybody for the last twenty-five years have been working towards the 100th rodeo. I, on the other hand, have been working for the 101st rodeo, because the 100th is important, but what’s more important is that there’s a 200 year rodeo. I won’t be around, but I’ll be observing it, and I’m hoping that that’s what we do. That’s what we’ve worked for. I want my great grandsons and granddaughters to someday sit there on the rodeo grounds and say, “My papa used to be in this.” That would be worth every minute of the work I ever did. That’s what I’m hoping for.

Narrator:

The park district is now 125,000 acres and home to 73 parks. There’s hiking trails, there’s swimming pools, there’s camping grounds, and of course — there are riding stables.

Now, when I look at the landscapes in Bob Walker’s photographs, I picture horses dotting the hills. It makes me understand why this land was so sacred to him, and why he cared so much about preserving it.

Bob Walker succumbed to HIV in 1992 at the age of forty. But not before he helped the park district buy almost 40,000 acres of land. A month before he died, the park district renamed a section of the Morgan Territory “Bob Walker Ridge,” his favorite place in the district. His efforts in land preservation laid the groundwork for much of what we see in the park system today. He put it best in an interview for “After the Storm”, a book featuring his photographs.

“Find something outside yourself that is yourself,” Bob said. “Then devote yourself to it with all of your heart.”

Thanks for listening to the Berkeley Remix, a podcast from the Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. Founded in 1954, the Center records and preserves the history of California, the nation, and our interconnected world. This episode was produced by Francesca Fenzi and me shanna. 

it features interviews with Judy Irving, Judi Bank, Becky Carlson, and Don Staysa that are part of the East Bay Regional Park District Parkland Oral History Project. A special thanks to the district and Beverly Ortiz. To learn more about these interviews, visit our website listed in the show notes. Thank you for listening to The Berkeley Remix, and please join us next time!

 


Episode 2 of OHC’s 5th Season of the Berkeley Remix Explores Gender Equality in the East Bay Regional Park District

Episode 2: There’s No Crying in Carpentry: Gender Equality in the East Bay Regional Park District

Set in the parks of the East Bay hills, the Hidden Heroes podcast season is about people who have made a difference: fighting fires, breaking gender barriers, preserving the land. 

In season 5 of the Berkeley Remix, we’re diving into the long history of the East Bay Regional Park District, which was founded in 1934. All of the episodes are set in the East Bay parks and are about people who’ve made a difference. Some are stories that you’re already familiar with, but haven’t heard quite like this. Over the course of three episodes, we’ll explore the park district’s integral role in fighting the 1991 Oakland Hills Fire, of being on the forefront of gender equality in the workplace, and how the districts efforts to preserve land benefited the public — through the lens of the local equestrian community.

The park district employs hundreds of people, many of whom are women. This episode digs into the history of gender equality at the East Bay Regional Park District. It follows the stories of two women who worked in the Tilden Corp yard, which houses heavy machinery, and how they challenged traditional gender roles in the workplace. They each have their own stories of growing their careers during affirmative action, and the impact that their work had on equality for all district employees. 

All episodes feature interviews from the East Bay Regional Park District Oral History Project. A special thank you to the East Bay Regional Park District, especially Beverly Ortiz and Brenda Montano. Photos taken by Bob Walker from the Bob Walker Collection of the Oakland Museum, courtesy of the East Bay Regional Park District. This episode includes interviews with Julie Haselden, Rachel MacDonald, and Stephen Gehrett. All music by Blue Dot Sessions: “Dorica Theme” and “A Palace of Cedar.”

To learn more about these interviews, visit the Oral History Center’s website.

This episode was produced by Shanna Farrell and Francesca Fenzi

A special thanks to the East Bay Regional Park District and Beverly Ortiz. 

The following is a written version of the episode.

 

Narrator:

We’ve been talking about equality in the workplace for decades , especially when it comes to gender. Throughout the 20th century, certain fields were perceived  as “masculine,” by nature. Jobs like construction, carpentry, engineering, and landscaping were seen as physically demanding — men’s work.

But  there have always been women who  challenged the status quo. We’ve all heard the story of Rosie the Riveter. During World War II, women at home took over factory jobs from men heading to war. These women worked as rivetors, welders,  machinists and woodworkers. Even professional baseball players.

And when the war ended, some women weren’t thrilled about giving their jobs back. By the 1960’s women began demanding equal opportunities  from employers. And they weren’t the only ones. 

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed an Executive Order requiring  government contractors to “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.” Four years later, “sex” was added to that list.  

Affirmative action has come to mean a lot of things to different people, which we’re not going to look at in detail. The important thing is that, by the 1970s, it meant employers in California were paying new attention to the composition of their workforce. And hiring women into positions that had previously been held by men. One of them was Julie Haselden.

Haselden:

The park district at the time was interested in implementing affirmative action and trying to get women into nontraditional jobs. 

Narrator:

In an effort to hire more women, the East Bay Regional Park District sent  park rangers to attend classes at local colleges and recruit female employees.

Rachel McDonald was one of these early recruits. Rachel was a single mother who needed to work.  She decided to apply.

McDonald:

Well, I applied and I got an interview. Mostly I was asked appropriate questions based on my application and the job. I think the only one that I thought was inappropriate was when the head of personnel asked me if I thought I’d be able to be dependable since I had a child. Since someone else said, “Well, she’s been working all these years with a child.”

Narrator:

Despite a few interview hiccups, Rachel got the job in 1974.

McDonald:

I kind of fudged a little bit. I said I’d taken out a tree when I hadn’t. [laughter] But I really lucked out being hired. I really did.

Narrator:

As a struggling single parent, this job was significant.

McDonald:

Well, it was a whole change. I had been on welfare. When I was hired, I remember telling my social worker from welfare that I didn’t need it anymore because I had this job. He was so happy and impressed because I was going to be making more money than him. 

Narrator:

Rachel went from spending her days in a classroom to working outside,  performing maintenance work. 

McDonald:

I loved that work for most of the time I was on it. It was really hard physical work. We’d pave roads and prune trails, work with the heavy equipment operators on trails. I operated heavy equipment sometimes. That wasn’t really my thing. I talked with another ranger once that was on the crew. I said, “Oh, I hate it because of this. I don’t like all the fumes.” He just loved it. He said, “It makes me feel more manly.” 

Narrator:

Rachel was one of the first — and only — women to be hired into a  position that involved physical responsibilities. The women who worked for the district were mostly in administrative and educator roles. 

McDonald:

A bunch of us women were hired in ’74. It was mostly clerical and naturalists. I think maybe in planning and design. But in the field no.

Narrator:

Rachel was still largely unique in the district. Until, A few years later, when in 1980, Julie Haselden was hired by the park district. 

Haselden:

I was absolutely delighted when I got the job. It was tough.

Narrator:

Julie was hired as a truck driver and forklift operator. She’d learned to operate heavy machinery from her boyfriend who was a sculptor in West Oakland. Julie’s a self-described tomboy. She wasn’t worried about what her male coworkers would  think.

Haselden:

The guys that were working there, a lot of them were like, “Well, women can’t do that” I think I might have been hired by a guy who wanted to prove that women couldn’t do the work. “You want me to hire a woman? I’ll hire a woman. Watch this!” 

Narrator:

Both Rachel and Julie worked out of the Tilden Corp yard, which was where the district kept their heavy equipment and maintenance supplies. Julie describes it as a bit of a boys’ club, where she  was a novelty. 

Haselden:

My first day, I guess I was loading a truck, and all these guys from the main office came to see this chick. These guys were watching me, leaning up on the warehouse wall, and they’re smoking cigarettes [makes murmuring noises] and holding the clipboard and kind of pretending like they were actually doing some work, but they were actually just watching the new kid. One of the guys, who later became my manager, said, “So you think you can do a man’s job, huh?” I said, “You mean, smoke a cigarette and hold a clipboard and watch somebody else work? I can do better than that.” [laughter] Anyway, I said something along those lines. Everybody laughed, and so that kind of broke the ice. 

Narrator:

Rachel says a sense of humor was a necessity at Tilden Corp Yard.

McDonald:

I think it might have been easier for me than for some women because, for some reason, I really got along with the guys. I didn’t let the way some of them talked, I didn’t like shutdown or get, “Arrrgh,” about it. To some point I could kid back about it. I joked a lot with people so that they enjoyed being around me. Plus, I just tried to do a good job. I’d have things happen where men would make comments, like the guy at the place where we’d pick up the base rock. But mostly, for me it was okay. I just really got along well with people.

Narrator:

But not every interaction was as easy for  Rachel to manage. When she first started with the district, a co-worker made  unwanted advances toward her. 

McDonald:

He wanted to be more involved with me than I wanted to be and it was very unpleasant. 

Narrator:

Rachel reported this to her supervisor.

McDonald:

He said, “It doesn’t matter in terms of the best interest of the district. You should just work it out or go somewhere else.” 

Narrator:

She chose for the second option, and  went looking for another job in the district. But switching roles wasn’t easy — not every supervisor was willing to hire women. One manager even told her not to apply. 

McDonald:

He was the guy that the roads and trails supervisor reported to. I told him I’d like to apply for that opening and he told me that he really didn’t want a woman on the crew because I wouldn’t be able to do as much work as the guys or something. 

Narrator:

Discouraged, but not dismayed, Rachel  took the matter higher up the chain. She went to the chief of administration, who was under the general manager. 

McDonald:

He told the chief of maintenance that, “You can’t say that kind of thing. If she wants that job and if no one else has applied, she gets the job.” The chief of maintenance wasn’t happy with me about it but I wanted that job.

Narrator:

Julie had less trouble fitting in, even if the space was clearly dominated by men. 

Haselden:

The mechanic shop at Tilden at the time, great bunch of guys, liked them all, but they had a lot of pornography on the walls. I mean, like, pornography. I didn’t really even hardly notice it. My years being a Teamster, I was surrounded by it; it was just like wallpaper. 

Narrator:

But it bothered other women who she worked with. One  named Maggie, in particular. So Julie decided to step in. 

Haselden:

I felt if someone else is going to be offended, then I will absolutely support them. She was going, “No, that is absolutely not acceptable.” “Really? Yeah, I guess you’re right. It’s offensive, isn’t it?” You wouldn’t want anyone to come in here and feel uncomfortable. 

Narrator:

Julie and Maggie’s male co-workers weren’t happy that the women were rocking the boat.

Haselden:

So the guys were very resistant. So these guys were going, “No, no, what are you talking about? We just love beautiful bodies. It’s nothing ugly; they’re beautiful bodies.” And then some other woman—I can’t remember who—got a picture out of a male gay porn pinup and went down when no one was looking, put it up on the wall, because it was a beautiful body. They ripped that thing down, tore it in little tiny pieces, said how disgusting that was. 

Narrator:

This seemed to open some of the men’s eyes. 

Haselden:

That was kind of, they kind of went, Hmm, wait a minute. Maggie was the one that made that happen and got it to be a G-rated place. They resisted, and Maggie prevailed.

Narrator:

Julie encountered other setbacks at Tilden, but she always seemed to approach it the same  way. She dug into her work, determined to do her job well. 

Haselden:

I was never going to play the girl card. I became really good at the forklift. It was an old forklift that you had to double clutch, and it was really hard to operate, but just doing it so much, I got really good at it. 

Narrator:

Rachel, by comparison, leaned into her feminine side.

McDonald:

It’s embarrassing to say but I acted more cutesy then. Like that. I always had my shirt unbuttoned one button too many. It was actually my husband, when we were getting to know each other. He told me once, “You’ve got to button that one up because if you want to be respected, that’s part of it.” From then on I did. I was competent, I was knowledgeable, but sometimes I undercut myself by acting too cutesy. 

Narrator:

Rachel learned to command respect by being more confident in herself and her abilities, and by compartmentalizing parts of her professional identity.

McDonald:

I still liked to joke and have fun but that part of it, the “sexy” part of it stopped. 

Narrator:

Eventually , both Rachel and Julie found their groove. Both were tapped for a carpenter’s apprenticeship, which meant higher pay. Rachel applied in 1978.

McDonald:

I spent a lot of time around the carpenters in the Corp Yard, talking with them or fooling around. I just thought, “Well, it might be fun. I might enjoy the work.”

Narrator:

Julie applied in the 1980s. 

Haselden:

There were lots of people that applied. They had two positions to fill. Again, it wasn’t the primary focus, but they wanted to implement some more affirmative action. But the two guys that they chose, Fred Porter and Dennis Waespi both happened to be white guys. It was over that day, we found out that they were named, but somehow—I don’t know how, it was heaven—there was a meeting after that, and somebody went to bat saying, “We need to get a woman in the trades.” They figured that I was the best candidate for that, so they included another position, which was huge in funding and planning. I was delighted.

Narrator:

The carpenters apprenticeship was a big commitment.

Haselden:

The program included seven thousand hours on the job, sixteen one-week classes, so it was four classes a year for four years, and each one of those classes was one week on.

Narrator:

Julie remembers her first few weeks. 

Haselden:

I had aptitude and energy but I had no building skills. I mean, I had delivered a lot of tools, I had handled a lot of tools, I had watched a lot of work, but I just didn’t really have a lot of experience. Which is kind of a good thing, I think, because I was just open. I was open. The first few weeks and months were very bloody fingers, [laughs] blisters, hard work.

Narrator:

But Rachel found that she didn’t enjoy the work. 

McDonald:

Well, I didn’t like being up on a roof. Not a flat roof.

Narrator:

Rachel also wasn’t getting much respect from the men in the program. 

McDonald:

All the guys pretty much were these old farts who really didn’t treat me with respect. They wouldn’t let me do anything really. Also the person who was head of all the crews like that, he didn’t treat me very well and he didn’t like having a female there.

Narrator:

Things hadn’t changed much when Julie started the program a few years later.

Haselden:

People weren’t as nice there. They were more competitive, young—and I was thirty at this point—no, I was thirty-five. These guys are all young and crazy. Anyway. It wasn’t always easy… It was uncomfortable. At work, I knew people, I just felt comfortable, I felt accepted. There were always a couple jerks, but I would avoid them, and no problem there. Even the teachers at the apprenticeship school would make wisecracks and just be pretty much unpleasant and kind of let me be in the class. It was just a very competitive, very guy thing. 

Narrator:

After two months, Rachel ultimately decided to withdraw from the apprenticeship.

McDonald:

When I’d go to work in the morning I was so depressed. I thought, “This really isn’t for me.” 

Narrator:

Julie, on the other hand, decided to stick it out because the payoff was worth it for her. 

Haselden:

If we had completed our apprenticeship, we had earned that job.

Narrator:

After completing the apprenticeship, Julie went on to work as a journeyman for the next 19 years. 

Haselden:

It felt really good. I felt good. It was well compensated, as far as the pay.

Narrator:

Rachel took another path. After she left the apprenticeship program she went back to the Roads & Trails crew. While she was deciding what to do next, she and her friend Dennis got to talking.  

McDonald:

We both realized we wanted to do something different and we came up with this idea. we’d do an exchange for two months, where he would work on roads and trails and I would work on Redwood. We didn’t see past that. We thought, “It’ll be a change for us, that maybe it will help us to decide what we want to do next and to try it out.” 

Narrator:

This switch gave Rachel the opportunity to do more administrative work, which she enjoyed. 

McDonald:

I discovered that I was really good at dealing with personnel and was really good at treating everybody the same. I got feedback about that during the years.

Narrator:

Rachel found that she had a talent for managing people. 

McDonald:

I just discovered I was really good at planning the work and figuring out what people liked to do and what they were good at and giving them opportunities to do it, to do new things. I would always meet with staff and ask them what their interests were and if you could do whatever you wanted on the job, what would you like to do? I tried to find something that fit in with that.

Narrator:

Motivated by this discovery, Rachel began taking management classes at UC San Francisco. This earned her a promotion to unit manager, where she got to play to her strengths. 

McDonald:

I was in the office more. I was always really clear about what I expected. When I was a unit manager I made sure everyone in my unit had a job clarification. I met with each crew and we went through and just talked about and agreed upon what the expectations were because I think that’s a big deal. A lot of people don’t know what their boss wants.

Narrator:

Her male colleagues gave her more respect, which was evident when she encountered sexim outside of the district. 

McDonald:

When I was a supervisor at Redwood I again had to deal with a lot of sexism because we had a lot of contractors doing work now. I remember on a few occasions where I’d be standing with the contractor and maybe one of his guys and then with some of my crew. I remember the contractor looking to one of my male staff and saying, “So what do you want to happen here?” He said, “You’re talking to the wrong person. She’s the supervisor.” They were good about it and they didn’t seem to be resentful.

Narrator:

Her response to this treatment changed, too.

McDonald:

Like I had to tell one guy, he worked for PG&E. He was the supervisor. Because they have to come in every year and trim trees for their power lines, I’d go with him out in the field first and we’d talk about what was going to be done. This guy had a habit of always calling me babe. I had to tell him more than once, “Don’t call me babe.” Finally he stopped. 

Narrator:

Julie and Rachel made different decisions about the apprenticeship program, but their choices had a lasting effect on both of their careers. after completing the apprenticeship program. Julie  went on to work on the Roads & Trails crew, in a management role.  

Haselden:

I was also running projects. I didn’t have any experience with asphalt, but I went to some classes, went to some seminars, and I started designing. I would do the drawings, I would do the scope of work, write up the contract, write up the bid proposal, get the contractors to come on site, select the contractor, develop the contract documents, run the project, be on the job, and then pay.

Narrator:

Julie’s work earned her praise from her supervisors, including Stephen Gehrett, her manager of several years. 

Gehrett:

Julie Haselden became the first woman carpenter, and she did, [laughs] and the reason why is she could dish it out like she got it, which was nice. And at the end of her career, I don’t think there’s anybody who disliked her. She’s just a wonderful lady.

Narrator:

She continued working on the Roads & Trails crew until she retired in 2011.

Affirmative action ended in California in November of 1996 when Proposition 209 was passed.  It amended the state constitution to prohibit state governmental institutions from considering race, sex, or ethnicity, specifically in the areas of public employment, public contracting, and public education. 

However, affirmative action had lasted long enough to get Rachel and Julie into the district. The two women had a lasting impact on the culture of the organization. While Rachel made changes at an administrative level, prioritizing equal treatment, Julie was a trailblazer in the field and has seen more women entering the trades.

As a result of these two women, and others like them, the district became a leader in gender equality.

Haselden:

I think the park district was really a forerunner for including and appreciating women, and they were given opportunities to go up in the hierarchy. Yeah, a lot of women have become supervisors and managers, and they’re doing great jobs. You wanted somebody that was a good worker and knew how to get along on a crew. Gender and color and size and shape does not matter.

Narrator:

For a short window of time, women like Rachel and Julie gained access to jobs that had previously been out of reach. And the ripple effects of those hires have been paving new pathways for women into this type of work, and redefining what is and isn’t possible in certain roles.

Thanks for listening to the Berkeley Remix, a podcast from the Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. Founded in 1954, the Center records and preserves the history of California, the nation, and our interconnected world. This episode was produced by Francesca Fenzi and Shanna Farrell. 

This episode features interviews with Rachel MacDonald, Julie Haselden, and Stephen Gehrett that are part of the East Bay Regional Park District Parkland Oral History Project. A special thanks to the district and Beverly Ortiz. To learn more about these interviews, visit our website listed in the show notes. I’m your host, Shanna Farrell. Thank you for listening to The Berkeley Remix, and please join us next time!

 


Episode 3 of OHC’s 5th Season of the Berkeley Remix Explores the Connection Between Parks, Eucalyptus Trees, and the 1991 Tunnel Fire

Episode 3: (Once in a) Career Fire: The East Bay Regional Park District Fights the Tunnel Fire

Set in the parks of the East Bay hills, the Hidden Heroes podcast season is about people who have made a difference: fighting fires, breaking gender barriers, preserving the land. 

In season 5 of the Berkeley Remix, we’re diving into the long history of the East Bay Regional Park District, which was founded in 1934. All of the episodes are set in the East Bay parks and are about people who’ve made a difference. Some are stories that you’re already familiar with, but haven’t heard quite like this. Over the course of three episodes, we’ll explore the park district’s integral role in fighting the 1991 Oakland Hills Fire, of being on the forefront of gender equality in the workplace, and how the districts efforts to preserve land benefited the public — through the lens of the local equestrian community.

Episode 3 explores the role of the EBRPD Fire Department in fighting the historic 1991 Oakland Hills Fire. It explores how the fire got so bad, and the early work that district employees did to prevent large wildfires.

This episode features interviews with district employees who managed the land and, later, who fought on the frontlines of the fire, including Anne Rockwell, Stephen Gehrett, Michael Avalos, Paul Miller, and John Nicoles who are part of the East Bay Regional Park District Parkland Oral History Project. To learn more about these interviews, visit the Oral History Center’s website. Photos taken by Bob Walker from the Bob Walker Collection of the Oakland Museum, courtesy of the East Bay Regional Park District

This episode was produced by Shanna Farrell and Francesca Fenzi

A special thanks to the East Bay Regional Park District and Beverly Ortiz. 

All music by Blue Dot Sessions:

  • “Dorica Theme” 
  • “A Palace of Cedar” 
  • “Drone Birch” 
  • “Feather on the Crest”

The following is a written version of the Berkeley Remix, Season 5 Episode 3.

Narrator:

It’s late October in Oakland, California — and the heat is miserable. It’s Sunday morning, and Anne Rockwell is at work in her office at the East Bay Regional Parks district.

Anne Rockwell:

I just remember that it was really hot. There was kind of a heavy feeling in the air. I don’t know that oppressive is quite the right word that I’m looking for, but it was a heavy feeling. It was just kind of a feeling of foreboding, I think, in a lot of ways.

Narrator:

The year is 1991. Anne and her husband Stephen Gehrett are both park district employees; and Stephen was enjoying his day off with a round of golf in Alameda.

Stephen Gehrett:

I recall being on one of the holes and seeing the flag at Veterans’ Memorial Plaza in Alameda, the flag just being blown straight away, straight out, and saying to my partner that day, “This is a pretty windy day,” and, “Yeah, it is,” and we kept playing, and then we saw smoke in the sky, and that’s when that whole thing started.

Narrator:

The night before, a small brush fire had ignited in the Berkeley Hills. Neither Anne nor Stephen had thought anything of it. They were both firefighters for the East Bay Regional Park District, and fires like this were common… and easily put down.

Stephen Gehrett:

I didn’t think it was going to be that big. I fully expected that the fire staff, fire crews on hand at the time could handle it. I just expected that. Seemed like that’s the way things went: Get a tone-out; people go; fire gets knocked down; do mop up; and you go home. But, I didn’t have any inkling at all that it was going to be this massive event.

Narrator:

By 11:30 am on Sunday, the brush fire had spread to a nearby apartment complex. High winds whipped embers through the air – starting new fires ahead of the original burn. Within an hour, the blaze had crossed two freeways and consumed hundreds of houses.

The Tunnel Fire would become one of the most devastating wildfires in state history until 2018. It would destroy almost 3,000 homes – leaving 25 dead and hundreds injured. Anne and Stephen didn’t know it yet, but they… along with the rest of the Park District fire department… would find themselves at the center of it all.

I’m Shanna Farrell, and you’re listening to the Berkeley Remix, a podcast from the Oral History Center at the University of California, Berkeley.

This season we’re heading to the East Bay Regional Park District for a three part mini-series. All of the episodes are set in the East Park parks and are about people who’ve made a difference. Some are stories that you’re already familiar with, but haven’t heard like this. Other stories you might not know, but should. We’re calling this series “Hidden Heroes.”

In this episode, we explore the role of the district in fighting the historic 1991 Oakland Hills Fire. We’ll be featuring interviews from our East Bay Regional Park District Parkland Oral History project, which is archived in our home at The Bancroft Library.

To understand just how this fire became so deadly, we have to go back to 1972. To another week of unusual fall weather.

John Nicoles:

We had a cold spell. I went to attend the big game…

Narrator:

That’s the big football game between Cal and Stanford, long-time rivals.

John Nicoles:

…in the tail end of November in shirt sleeves, in short-sleeve shirt, and a week later, it was below freezing, for a week.

 Narrator:

John Nicoles was a land surveyor for the park district at the time. And, after that cold spell, he noticed something suspicious about the trees in his survey area.

John Nicoles:

It wasn’t immediately obvious that anything had happened. But then what became apparent was that the foliage had all died. The real problem, when push came to shove, the real problem was that the eucalyptus had been frozen.

Narrator:

The frost had damaged the eucalyptus trees in Berkeley and Oakland.

John Nicoles:

It began to be apparent that these injury places, these damaged places, were an entry point for decay. Then, that’s when the problems began, because you can’t really see the decay. 

Narrator:

John says the trees looked fine on the surface, but inside many were dead and rotting. And this posed a serious hazard. It’s worth noting that John doesn’t tend to see trees like you and I might – as beautiful fixtures in the natural landscape. He sees them as death traps.

John Nicoles:

Sometimes the trees come uprooted. This is probably now eight or ten years ago now, but a group of students on a river rafting trip on the American River, were camped out and an oak tree came uprooted and killed somebody.

Narrator:

To John, the dead leaves and rotting branches on the eucalyptus were another catastrophe waiting to happen. Not only could the trees fall on somebody, but…

John Nicoles:

All these dead leaves in the crowns, 200 feet up, were an immense fire hazard.

Narrator:

Still, not everyone saw it like he did. Plenty of people doubted the trees were even damaged – much less dangerous.

John Nicoles:

We don’t have a stethoscope for trees. We can’t take their pulse and so on. You have to make some judgment calls. This led to an incredible turmoil. There were people who said, “Nothing’s dead.” There were people saying, “They’re all dead.” And there, you turn out, the world’s divided into eucalyptus lovers and eucalyptus haters.

Narrator:

But John isn’t the kind of person to give up when he recognizes a problem.

John Nicoles:

I was kind of a fighter.

Narrator:

He made it his mission to cut back the dead and damaged trees.

John Nicoles:

What the eucalyptus problem, and the freeze did, was suddenly it became clear you needed to put money into forest management. The park district had never thought of the forest land as something to be managed, whether that’s the redwood land or the eucalyptus land or the oak woodland, these were all just permanent fixtures in the landscape.

Narrator:

Suddenly, John was challenging the narrative. The trees of the park district weren’t just static things to be preserved – they were alive, and had to be maintained.

John Nicoles:

But boy, you talk about a quantum, a tectonic shift in district philosophy and policy. I remember one occasion I was talking to Jerry Kent about tree hazards, and I said, “Jerry, the trees don’t care about you. They do what they do, and our job is to anticipate that.” That’s the character of the—trees are wonderful. They wouldn’t drop a limb on my head, but indeed, they do.

We had a situation in which a limb fell and injured a woman. There’s this limb; it’s lying on the ground, and it was broken off at the end where it had been killed by the freeze. I said, “Here’s the evidence that this is what’s going on here.”

Narrator:

John had the proof he needed to begin removing eucalyptus trees. He assembled a team of workers – he calls them the Euc-Crew. They got to work cutting down the trees.

John Nicoles:

Theoretically, this was supposed to be what we call a fuel break wherever there were eucalyptus, we [makes cutting sound] just slicked it off.

Narrator:

But the district covers more than 125,000 acres of land over 73 parks. Eliminating all of the dead or damaged eucalyptus from that area was difficult, and time consuming.

John Nicoles:

We cut the trees in ’73, and when I left in ’92, we finally almost had a handle on it.

Narrator:

By the early 1990s, the Euc-Crew had created a sizable fuel break – clearing a broad area of eucalyptus trees in the Oakland hills. Enough so, that John finally got out of the tree-clearing business. And responsibility for the dying foliage shifted to the park district’s young and growing fire department. Here’s Paul Miller, a ranger who doubled as a firefighter for the district.

Paul Miller:

We’d go out and we’d burn off vegetation in some of the parks. We’d, burn off the vegetation along the interface with the neighborhoods so that if a fire started there would be a buffer and it wouldn’t progress into the neighborhoods.

Narrator:

The way Paul describes it, things were informal in the early days of the fire department.

Paul Miller:

It could be as much or as little as you wanted. If you didn’t call in when there was a response, then it didn’t cost you any time at all.

Narrator:

Firefighters were volunteer, and often recruited from other places around the district. Michael Avalos was another member at the time.

Michael Avalos:

There were, of course, a lot of rangers that were firefighters, but there were carpenters, plumbers, mechanics, clericals—a lot of different job classifications.

Narrator:

Because park district firefighters had lots of other commitments, participation could be erratic. Stephen Gehrett says people wouldn’t always show up.

Stephen Gehrett:

Requirements were to respond to a fire, if you were called. Most times, I responded; many times I didn’t.

Narrator:

But, for the most part, this worked. Park district employees chipped in where they could – stayed home when they couldn’t.

Anne Rockwell:

I didn’t go to fires that would impact my work at all until I went to the Oakland fire, and even then, that was on a Sunday, and I waited for a lot of tone outs to happen before I finally went.

Narrator:

That’s Anne Rockwell, again. She says on the day of the Tunnel Fire, early calls to Oakland sounded like any routine burn. A small brush fire had started on Saturday afternoon. Michael was one of the first firefighters to respond.

Michael Avalos:

I was in there on Saturday, the first time that it went off, and we helped Oakland put it out. We had left hose line there on Saturday, and on Sunday, there was a call to go and pick up the hose that we had left. It had been a long season up to that point, and my niece was a week old and I hadn’t seen her yet, so I said, “I’ve put in enough time this year. I’m going to meet my niece.”

Narrator:

Michael was about to head home, when the chief came back with some news. Winds had picked up, and the fire had reignited.

Michael Avalos:

Our chief came back and said, “They need us back out on the line, and I’m going to let you guys make the decision. I know you’ve been working hard. It’s up to you. If you don’t want to go back”—and we, of course, said, “Yeah, we’re going.” We went back out on the line for another two days, and it was some very interesting firefighting.

Narrator:

By Sunday afternoon, the true scope of the Tunnel Fire was becoming clear. Ashes were falling on Candlestick park. Anne and Stephen had left their kids with Anne’s mom and were heading – separately – into the blaze.

Stephen Gehrett:

By the time I got there, things were pretty much crazy. Some Oakland Fire guy said, “Follow this motorcycle cop through the tunnel,” and I was in my little Volkswagen Bug. And so I started following this motorcycle cop, and he disappeared in the smoke and the haze of the tunnel. Before I got to the tunnel, he disappeared in the smoke, and I thought, I have no clue what’s on the other side of this; I can’t go this way. So I turned around and I came back down to Claremont. There were so many people freaked out. I just remember residents standing there, “What can I do? Can I go with you to help? My house is up there,” kind of thing. And so I got up there and my assignment was to drive the water tanker, and I did that for our next couple of days.

Narrator:

Stephen discovered that getting water to the fire was harder than he’d expected. The hydrants in Oakland didn’t fit all of the hoses available — making his tanker one of the few sources of water on the hill.

Meanwhile, Anne was battling another element: the raging wind.

Anne Rockwell:

I was assigned to work with Jack Kenny, and we called it the Jack Attack. We were defending the KPFA radio towers, and… as I was driving, I remember seeing the wind blowing these embers across the freeway, across Highway 13, and I saw a pine tree just explode, and I thought, wow, what am I doing?

Narrator:

The wind was whipping flames into the air faster than 70 miles per hour. The only thing keeping the fire from spreading was the highway itself – and not for long. Embers met the dry, dead branches of eucalyptus below.

Stephen Gehrett:

I had never seen them burned before. I didn’t know that they were so oily that they would catch fire and spread fire quickly. It wasn’t until the Tunnel Fire that it really dawned on me that they were a hazard out there just waiting to ignite. 

Narrator:

No longer contained by the highway, the fire tore down the hill – consuming eucalyptus trees and houses in a matter of seconds. Stephen would later learn that the fire had destroyed seventeen pumping stations in the Oakland system. It had begun to feel almost impossible to stop.

Stephen Gehrett:

What really shook me was when the battalion chief from Oakland died. When I heard over the radio that somebody actually had died, that was awful, really, because the firefighting just seemed like, well, if it’s too hot, you got to leave. There’s always a safety way, a safe route out. 

Narrator:

As the afternoon wore on, back-up had arrived in the form of 400 firefighting units, some from as far north as Oregon. But with the new reinforcements came additional confusion.

Anne Rockwell:

There was so much confusion and so much activity on the radio. We were used to being on our own station, just with the fire talking to other fire, but now we were talking with other departments. It really kept your heart pumping, I think, because I’d hear about people reporting from Claremont Canyon—that’s where our daycare provider lived—and I thought, oh wow, I hope they got out.

Narrator:

For Stephen, the radio updates were a reminder that Anne was also fighting the blaze.

Stephen Gehrett:

For me, having my spouse on the fire was a little disconcerting, just because I didn’t know where she was, and didn’t know what she was up against. That unknown was scary.

Narrator:

Eventually, he found Anne when he delivered water to the KPFA radio towers where she was stationed. After that…

Anne Rockwell:

I knew he was driving the water tender, so I knew he was okay. I knew if something happened to him, somebody would let me know.

Narrator:

As night began to fall, circumstances shifted. The winds died down, granting both Anne and Stephen a brief reprieve.

Anne Rockwell:

I was on the line all night. I think I got a chance to rest when we were at Broadway Terrace. There was a house that had a hot tub underneath the deck and we used it to wash our faces, and we all had bandannas, and they were just completely—we just turned the water black, and just rinsed off our stuff and rinsed off our faces and hands, because we were just completely filthy and covered with poison oak, and soot, and sweat.

Narrator:

It would take all night before the fire was completely suppressed. But the end was finally in sight. And with it – a clearer view of the devastation.

Anne Rockwell:

I remember watching the sun come up and looking out at the devastation, and thinking I had never seen anything like this in my life. There weren’t even hulks of cars left. There was just nothing. There was puddles and ash. There were places where there was literally puddles of metal. There were, during the night though, I can remember the pilot lights from the gas lines at people’s houses that were glowing. You could see them all around, and when the sun came up, you’d see one or two houses that were completely untouched, and then just nothing around them.

I think in the morning, we went back to—the steam train parking lot had been set up as a resting station. People came and had all kinds of food set up in that parking lot, and there were cots, and I think that’s—

Stephen Gehrett:

That’s—

Anne Rockwell: —where we connected. I just remember all those people. It was like seeing what you see on the news when the Red Cross shows up, because that’s exactly what it was, but I’d never been on the receiving end of that where people were taking care of us for going out and fighting the fire.

Narrator:

At the resting station, Anne and Stephen began to connect with their fellow park district firefighters. Michael Avalos was there, too, and remembers the atmosphere as firefighters from all over the city emerged from the night.

Michael Avalos:

I think it was a big unifying thing. It was a life-changing thing. It was what a lot of people would call a career fire, and hopefully, you don’t go through something like that more than once in a career.

Anne Rockwell:

It was somber because that was the first time—oh I’m speaking for the whole fire department maybe, but for all of us to have dealt with death as part of—we were used to fighting the fires in the woodlands, so we didn’t see any people’s homes. We saw an occasional structure burn, but we didn’t see people lose their homes, and we didn’t hear about people dying because of a fire, or getting trapped and all the panic that was going on. People were exhausted, and we were all awestruck by what we’d been through, and I think it was just settling in what a phenomenal moment this was.

Michael Avalos:

It was bonding, of course. You’d been through life and death circumstances. It was very bonding.

Narrator:

But Stephen also recognized where things could have improved. Starting with his early response to the fire.

Anne Rockwell:

I think what I would have done differently had I known is, I would have gone a lot earlier, and in fact, I did start going to more fires after that, because I felt like it was more important to support the fire fighting group at that point. 

Narrator:

In the weeks and months after the Tunnel Fire, many involved would reflect on their roles fighting the blaze. These reflections extended beyond personal commitments — and formed the basis of fire defense strategy in the bay area. People remembered the delayed responses… the mismatched fire hydrants… the radio confusion.

And, of course, they remembered the eucalyptus.

Anne Rockwell:

I think one of the things that can be learned is about—managing the eucalyptus forest around us, managing for trees, not just eucalyptus, with all the years of drought and all the dead pines—that people need to take that seriously, if they want to continue to live in the environment. You have narrow roads. You need to take care of the brushes around your home. Just seeing all over different parts of the state where these fires are so devastating, all this came after drought, series of drought years and big wind years, and so the time is now for people to really prepare for their escape routes, and like I say, to prepare for a different-looking environment.

Stephen Gehrett:

I think homeowners have awakened to look at their houses and get rid of that shake roof, sweep all those dead pine needles off their property, that there’s this learning curve, and people have embraced that and know that the possibility of fire is only getting greater every day, it’s not getting less. I think people have learned a lesson on a lot of different aspects of how to approach living in a fire-prone area.

Narrator:

Within the park district, many would also realize that if John Nicoles hadn’t fought to manage the eucalyptus trees and create fuel breaks, the fire could have been much worse.

Anne Rockwell:

I think it wasn’t until some time had gone by, maybe when we had our critical incident debriefings, that I felt a lot of pride in the way that people had handled themselves, and how they had gotten out of situations. I was proud to be part of the team, I think, to be part of that whole department, and that’s why I still think that we joke about it to say “we were on the Jack Attack.” I felt like I was really on a team and that we pulled together, and took on a task that saved all of the East Bay.

Narrator:

Thanks for listening to the Berkeley Remix, a podcast from the Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. Founded in 1954, the Center records and preserves the history of California, the nation, and our interconnected world. This episode was produced by Francesca Fenzi and Shanna Farrell.

This episode features interviews with Anne Rockwell, Stephen Gehrett, Michael Avalos, Paul Miller, and John Nicoles that are part of the East Bay Regional Park District Parkland Oral History Project. A special thanks to the district and Beverly Ortiz. To learn more about these interviews, visit our website listed in the show notes. I’m your host, Shanna Farrell. Thank you for listening to The Berkeley Remix, and please join us next time!


The Oral History Center Launches Season 5 of the Berkeley Remix Podcast

Set in the parks of the East Bay hills, the Hidden Heroes podcast season is about people who have made a difference: fighting fires, breaking gender barriers, preserving the land. 

In season 5 of the Berkeley Remix, we’re diving into the long history of the East Bay Regional Park District, which was founded in 1934. All of the episodes are set in the East Bay parks and are about people who’ve made a difference. Some are stories that you’re already familiar with, but haven’t heard quite like this. Over the course of three episodes, we’ll explore the park district’s integral role in fighting the 1991 Oakland Hills Fire, of being on the forefront of gender equality in the workplace, and how the districts efforts to preserve land benefited the public — through the lens of the local equestrian community. 

 

Episode 1: You Really Love Your Land, Don’t You: Expansion of the East Bay Regional Park District

The first episode of the season dives into public use of the park. Since the district was formed in 1934, it has acquired 125,000 acres that span 73 parks. The episode begins with the role that one special volunteer-turned-employee played in convincing ranchers and landowners to sell their property to be preserved by the park district. Without the work of this man, and others like him, the  public would not have access to this land. This includes the local equestrian community, whom we hear from in the rest of the episode, exploring how the district became a haven for horse lovers. This episode includes interviews with Judy Irving, Don Staysa, Judi Bank, and Becky Carlson who are part of the East Bay Regional Park District Parkland Oral History Project. To learn more about these interviews, visit the Oral History Center’s website.

This episode was produced by Shanna Farrell and Francesca Fenzi

A special thanks to the East Bay Regional Park District, especially Beverly Ortiz and Brenda Montano. 

Photos from the Bob Walker Collection at the Oakland Museum of California

All music by Blue Dot Sessions:

  • “Dorica Theme” 
  • “A Palace of Cedar” 

 

Episode 2: There’s No Crying in Carpentry: Gender Equality in the East Bay Regional Park District

The park district employs hundreds of people, many of whom are women. This episode digs into the history of gender equality at the East Bay Regional Park District. It follows the stories of two women who worked in the Tilden Corp yard, which houses heavy machinery, and how they challenged traditional gender roles in the workplace. They each have their own stories of growing their careers during affirmative action, and the impact that their work had on equality for all district employees. This episode includes interviews with Julie Haselden, Rachel MacDonald, and Stephen Gehrett who are part of the East Bay Regional Park District Parkland Oral History Project. To learn more about these interviews, visit the Oral History Center’s website.

This episode was produced by Shanna Farrell and Francesca Fenzi

A special thanks to the East Bay Regional Park District and Beverly Ortiz.

All music by Blue Dot Sessions:

  • “Dorica Theme” 
  • “A Palace of Cedar”

 

Episode 3: (Once in a) Career Fire: The East Bay Regional Park District Fights the Tunnel Fire

This episode explores the role of the EBRPD Fire Department in fighting the historic 1991 Oakland Hills Fire. It explores how the fire got so bad, and the early work that district employees did to prevent large wildfires. It features interviews with district employees who managed the land and, later, who fought on the frontlines of the fire, including Anne Rockwell, Stephen Gehrett, Michael Avalos, Paul Miller, and John Nicoles who are part of the East Bay Regional Park District Parkland Oral History Project. To learn more about these interviews, visit the Oral History Center’s website.

This episode was produced by Shanna Farrell and Francesca Fenzi

A special thanks to the East Bay Regional Park District and Beverly Ortiz. 

All music by Blue Dot Sessions:

  • “Dorica Theme” 
  • “A Palace of Cedar” 
  • “Drone Birch” 
  • “Feather on the Crest”

OHC Director’s Column, October 2019

by Martin Meeker

@MartinDMeeker

Recording, transcribing, and making oral histories accessible represents only a portion of the work that we do at the Oral History Center. We relish the opportunity to engage with these raw historical materials and fashion them into a variety of interpretative works too. 

The 4,000 oral histories in our collection have been used by OHC staff in the writing of conference papers, articles, and books for sure. And while we remain committed to our mission of creating quality first-person historical accounts that might be used in the most rigorous of academic studies, we also recognize—and applaud—the use of these interviews across a much broader field. Now, OHC interviews are used in podcasts, documentary films, dramatic productions, and more.

Bob Walker Photo
Photo by Bob Walker, courtesy of the East Bay Regional Park District

As the ability to preserve, edit, and distribute audio and video productions becomes ever easier, ever more democratized, we at OHC have also utilized these resources to create videos and podcasts that draw heavily upon the collection. We are on the verge of releasing our fifth podcast season, Hidden Heroes. This one focuses on the East Bay Regional Park District and is being produced by Shanna Farrell and Francesca Fenzi. Previous seasons have looked at the history of the University of California at 150 years, the early response to AIDS in San Francisco, and the long history of women in politics. 

Our main goal with these podcasts is to offer robust yet widely accessible narrative interpretations—pivotal moments in history that our collection can illuminate. We are historians, and this is what we do. But we also have an important alternate motivation (or two) in spending hundreds of hours required to produce these podcasts. While our 4,000 oral histories (amounting to tens of thousands of hours of interviews) are readily accessible through our website, we are well aware that, say, a 30 hour interview with a scientist might be a tad overwhelming and many who could find something of real value in these life histories might never know to look there. With these podcasts and the many other interpretive materials we create, we are seeking to distribute breadcrumbs around the internet—breadcrumbs that might lead users back to the collection and back to the lengthy but otherwise invisible oral histories. We know that there are many people who are passionate about history but who aren’t trained researchers. These breadcrumbs help steer these folks toward these free and substantive and lively interviews.

I know I can speak for the whole oral history team at Berkeley that we endeavor not just to create excellent interviews in collaboration with our narrators but that we strive to make that work known to the widest public possible.


New OHC Release : Anne Halsted

The Oral History Center is pleased to announce the release of Anne Halsted’s interview, a leading community advocate.

Shanna Farrell conducted thirteen sessions with Anne throughout 2018. Below are her reflections about meeting and interviewing Anne, and the enormous contributions she has made to the city of San Francisco.

 

Anne Halsted: A Leading Community Advocate

Anne Halsted
Anne Halsted in 2018

I had heard a lot about Anne Halsted before I met her in person. Her name came up, repeatedly, when I interviewed former SPUR Executive Director Jim Chappell. He spoke about her with such high regard that I couldn’t help but take notice. When I later learned that I’d be interviewing her, I was delighted, and slightly intimidated by her extensive and impressive work as a leading community advocate. 

But from the moment she welcomed me into her home, she made me feel comfortable and at ease, with help from Nelson, her adorable black lab. Over the next four month, she made space for me to ask her about her childhood, her education, her move to San Francisco, and her long career in Human Resources. We talked about her initial interest in civic engagement, which was ignited by zoning issues around the North Point Sewage Plant in her North Beach neighborhood. We discussed how this experience led to more and more engagement in local politics, including her time on SPUR’s board, which she spoke about with passion and fondness. 

I learned about her natural way of cultivating networks and fostering collaboration. I learned about her dedication to the environment and the million little things that she’s done to advance equity. I learned about her desire to lift up other women and give them space to become leaders. I learned that she’s a smart, driven, kind, and generous woman who loves the city she calls home. 

As an oral historian, I have the privilege of getting to know people over weeks and weeks, asking them to reflect on how they understand the world and their place in it. There are times when these interviews help me understand my own place in the world, and, when I’m lucky, time that I leave feeling inspired by the stories my narrators have shared. I felt this way about Anne and her interview. Not only did she help me to see the city where I live, and my role in it, in an enlightened way, she left me feeling inspired to leave it a better place than I found it.

It was a pleasure to be the person who got to record her oral history, with help from my colleague Amanda Tewes, and an even greater pleasure to get to share her interview with the world. I hope that you will all learn as much as I did from Anne and walk away feeling just as inspired, and that blazing your own path is possible. Through this interview, its place in the Oral History Center’s esteemed collection, and its home in The Bancroft Library’s archive, Anne will continue giving to the Bay Area for decades to come. 


Reflections from the OHC’s 2019 Graduate Student of Color Fellow

Rudy Mondragón is the Oral History Center’s 2019 Graduate Student of Color Fellow. He  is a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Los Angeles working on a project that looks at the sport of boxing and the ways in which black and brown boxers politically and culturally express themselves via the famous ring entrance.

During the summer of 2019, he traveled to Rhode Island to interview professional boxer Kali Reis. When complete, his interview will be archived in our collection.  Below are his reflections on this experience and how this will shape his graduate work.

“The Heart Beat of Our People”: My Experience With a World Champion

By: Rudy Mondragón

I spent three days in Rhode Island with a world champion. Kali “K.O. Mequinonoag” Reis is a fighter who is of Seaconke Wampanoag, Cherokee, and Nipmuc heritage as well as Cape Verdean. In her 11 years of boxing professionally, Kali has earned the International Boxing Association (IBA), Universal Boxing Federation (UBF), and World Boxing Council (WBC) middleweight world titles. In addition to these prestigious accolades, Kali made history, alongside her opponent Cecilia Brækhus, in becoming the first woman to be on a televised Home Box Office (HBO) fight card. This was the first time in their 45 years of televising fights that HBO showcased a women’s fight.

Kali Belts
Kali Reis with her IBA, UBF, and WBC world titles. Photo by: Rudy Mondragón

My research examines the ways in which boxers (un)intentionally utilize the ring entrance as a political space to communicate their politics, new identities and subjectivities, and at times the performance of dissent and resistance. I first heard about Kali leading up to her May 5, 2018 fight against Cecilia Brækhus. The way she centers her indigenous identity demonstrates the possibilities that exist in ring entrances for boxers to express themselves in a plethora of ways. My initial thought was that she is a curator of her ring entrances, creatively using fashion and style, music, and her entourage to communicate a powerful message of belonging, dignity, empowerment, and storytelling. When I saw her ring entrance that night, I knew it was necessary that her story be documented and incorporated into my dissertation research. 

The timing of the UC Graduate Oral History Center Fellowship was perfect. Being a recipient of this award allowed me to do two things: First, it gave me the necessary resources to make the trip to Rhode Island and meet Kali in person and second, to document a 6-hour oral history that would be archived in The Bancroft Library for future use and public access.

Kali in Ring
Kali Reis training at Big Six Boxing Academy under heat lamps used to simulate
the conditions of fighting under the hot lights. Photo by: Rudy Mondragón

I made the trip to Pawtucket, Rhode Island in mid-June. Immediately after landing in Boston, I hopped into my white Hyundai rental car and made the drive an hour south in the pouring rain to Kali’s home. There were warehouse buildings to my left and to my right was McCoy Stadium, the home of the Pawtucket Red Sox minor league baseball team. I finally arrived at her home, which was on the corner of a residential intersection. I knocked on the front door and out came Kali with a big smile and welcomed me inside.  

I waited in the living room as she prepared for our first of three interviews. In her living room were her three championship belts as well as a signed purple 8-ounce Cleto Reyes glove that she intended to wear for her fight against Brækhus. Due to boxing politics and the demands of her opponents’ team, Kali was forced to wear 10-ounce gloves instead. 

Kali called me over and walked me down to the basement of her home, which is a multifunctional space. In the room is a meditation tapestry wall hanging, a buddha, massage table for her reiki healing treatments, and tranquil waterfall sounds. The other part of the room is used by her partner, Stephanie, for her hairdressing and nail-tech work. The time had finally come for our first conversation.

Kali Day 3
Day 3 of interview with Kali Reis. Photo by: Rudy Mondragón

As a critical sports studies researcher who uses ethnographic methods and conducts in-depth interviews and oral histories, centering the voices of professional fighters is a critical priority. The stories that fighters share are not simply stories. They are a way to remember the past and connect it with the future. Storytelling, according to Russell Bishop, is a useful and culturally appropriate way to represent multiple truths because the storyteller retains control of their narrative.  

In the three days and six hours of interview time with Kali, we were able to peel back the layers of her elaborate ring entrance. She described the parallels of her ring entrance with her experiences in attending powwows and fancy dancing: 

“It’s a grand entry. So, at the beginning of a pow wow, to open up ceremony of a pow wow, you’ll have your warriors, your veterans, and you have the tribal flags. And there’s usually no video taking. It’s very sacred, you’re opening up the circle, you’re allowing your elders and everybody to open up that circle for you. So, basically my (ring) entrance is the same way. It’s becoming a grand entry, because every time I fight at home, there’s more and more dancers. But it’s a grand entry into that battlefield, into that square circle.” 

Kali’s breakdown here demonstrates the ways in which her lived experiences as an indigenous person directly inform and manifest in her ring entrance. Her ring entrance is very similar to a powwow’s grand entry, the only difference, as she states, is that the end of her entrance marks the beginning of her battle inside the ring. 

Her ring attire, created by Angel Alejandro from Double A Boxing, consists of a process that includes Kali sharing her vision for her ring robe and trunks with Angel. That is followed up by conversations between the two so that visionary and designer are on the same page. The ring attire she wore in her fight against Brækhus for example, included the colors white and purple, which represent royalty. Purple is the color of wampum shells, used for jewelry and belts made for Sachems and Chiefs. On the back of her sleeveless robe are two feathers, which represent her two spiritedness. Since the feathers are placed upward, they signify war. Feathers down, she states, symbolizes peace.

Kali Trunks
Kali Reis’s ring attire for her May 5, 2018 fight. Photo courtesy of Kali Reis

Kali’s entourage is something that is created on a fight to fight basis. In addition to making sure that she has “strong women dancing” her to the ring, she also believes “that the creator will send the right people to dance in front of me.” This is exactly what she did for her fight against Brækhus. The week prior to her Cinco de Mayo showdown, Kali put out a call on her social media platforms, calling on all “CALIFORNIA NATIVES.” She specifically asked if there were drummers and dancers willing to walk her to the ring. On the night of the fight, she had three dancers walk her to the ring. Two were of Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara heritage and one was Mashpee Wampanoag. 

And in terms of her music, Kali described the drums in her ring entrance as “the heartbeat of our people” and “the voices that sing those songs are the cries of mother earth.” If Kali has indigenous people walk her to the ring, she allows them to pick whatever drums and songs they want. She does this because she firmly believes it’s the right way to honor them for honoring her and the collective of indigenous peoples around the world.

The original vision for my dissertation was to breakdown chapters thematically, intersecting boxing with how boxers deploy fashion and style, music and soundscapes, and entourages in their ring entrances. In the six hours I spent with Kali, she deconstructed her ring entrance to the extent that the three themes of expressive culture I analyze in my research were strongly articulated. This presented a new possibility, which has inspired a shift in the vision for my dissertation to add an additional chapter on oral history as a method and case-study that will focus solely on Kali Reis.

I reflected on my trip to Rhode Island a couple of days later and remembered a moment that meant a great deal to me. As Kali and I drove back to her home after enjoying a delicious vegan meal at the Garden Grille, she asked me who I thought would win in the upcoming fight between Manny Pacquiao and Keith Thurman. Here I was, sitting in a car with a professional practitioner of the sweet science, asking me for my thoughts on an upcoming fight. She asked me a meaningful question that resulted in a rich conversation. It made me think of the first time I ever reached out to Kali via Instagram and subsequent conversations that followed. Since then, Kali and I have built rapport and collective trust that contributed to the in-depth stories that she shared with me. 

I can never see Kali as solely a research subject. I see her as a multifaceted and complex person who is the narrator of her story. She’s also become a friend of mine. There is no distancing myself from Kali as I begin the process of analyzing her oral history. On the contrary, there is going to be ongoing communication as well as ever increasing pressure. This pressure that I feel is not bad at all. I see it as an ongoing reminder that I have an obligation and responsibility to represent Kali’s story in an honorable, humanized, and just way.  

This approach, in my opinion, is the right way to honor Kali’s story.