From the Oral History Center Director: Martin Meeker, our New Director, Recalls His First Interview

Recently I was asked, “What was the first interview you conducted?” After a moment mentally scanning through college and grad school research projects, I realized that I undertook my first proper interview years earlier, when I was a junior at St. Francis High School in Mountain View, California. Entirely out of step with my Catholic school education, I choose to write my junior year research paper on that recently departed rock ‘n roll alien David Bowie.

The teacher insisted that we conduct an interview “with a real expert” as part of the research process. Not being the most ambitious student, I was at a loss: who did I know that might qualify as an expert? A friend of a friend was a die-hard fan, but even then I knew that choice wouldn’t win me any rave reviews. I had been reading a recently published biography of Bowie and resolved to try to locate the author, Jerry Hopkins. I sent a note and then called his New York publisher a few times. Finally I got someone on the line and asked, “Can I have Jerry Hopkins’s contact info? I want to interview him.” The voice on the line hesitated and said something like, “Oh, Mr. Hopkins. He lives in Hawaii. But we cannot give out contact information for our authors. Please send us a note and we’ll forward it to him.”

In hindsight I suspect that deadlines were looming and I certainly knew mail was slow. Armed with that one vague piece of information, I called information in Hawaii and, sure enough, there was a Jerry Hopkins of Honolulu listed. I called and left a message, explaining my project (and hoping that this was the correct Mr. Hopkins). A few days later, Hopkins kindly returned my call. At the beginning of what I remember to be a long and substantial conversation, I admitted that I was incredibly nervous. Hopkins was kind, telling me that he “still gets anxious” when doing interviews. With those reassuring words, I immediately found my footing and I began my first interview.

Yes, I enjoyed the experience of discussing Bowie with a bona-fide expert, but never did I imagine that interviewing would become my career — my vocation. I arrived at the Oral History Center (then known as the Regional Oral History Office) as a postdoctoral fellow in July 2003 and then a year later began as a historian/interviewer. Since that time I’ve had the opportunity to work of many, varied projects — from Kaiser Permanente to federal fiscal policy — and interviewed well over 100 individuals (many for long, life-history interviews of a dozen hours or more). The experience of conducting these interviews has taught me much about scores of different topics. Perhaps what has become clearest to me through the years is simply how much I enjoy the interview process, hearing different stories, and doing my best to get people to think about their own lives and contributions in sometimes new and unique ways. So, now I get the opportunity to lead the place that has given me so much.

In the months ahead I will begin to lay out my agenda for the coming years (in this newsletter and on our blog), but for now I just want to thank those who have supported me — and the Oral History Center — up to this point and invite you to join me in looking ahead to the next chapter. My office is always open to people who want to engage with us, learn more about interviewing, or just talk history.

And in closing I want to offer my sincere and profound gratitude to Neil Henry, the outgoing director of the Oral History Center. Neil came aboard at a particularly challenging time for the office and provided sage leadership, always with good humor and a gentle touch. I learned a lot from him over the past few years and wish him the best in his well-earned retirement. Thanks, Neil!

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