The Berkeley Remix Season 7, Episode 1: “Save Mount Diablo’s Past”

episode 1 photo
Mary Bowerman Trail. Photograph courtesy of Scott Hein. For more information about this image, visit Hein Natural History Photography.

In Episode 1, we explore Save Mount Diablo’s past. From its origins in the environmental movement to its successful political activism to its incorporation as a nonprofit, Save Mount Diablo built a solid foundation for fifty years of land conservation. This episode asks: why save Mount Diablo? What did it take to save Mount Diablo? What sustained Save Mount Diablo?

In season 7 of The Berkeley Remix, a podcast of the Oral History Center at UC Berkeley, we head to Mount Diablo in Contra Costa County. In the three-part series, “Fifty Years of Save Mount Diablo,” we look at land conservation in the East Bay through the lens of Save Mount Diablo, a local grassroots organization. It’s been doing this work since December 1971—that’s fifty years. This season focuses on the organization’s past, present, and future. Join us as we celebrate this anniversary and the impact that Save Mount Diablo has had on land conservation in the Bay Area and beyond.

This season features interview clips from the Save Mount Diablo Oral History Project. A special thanks to Save Mount Diablo for supporting this project!




This episode features interviews from our Save Mount Diablo Oral History Project and includes clips from: Seth Adams, Ted Clement, Bob Doyle, Scott Hein, Egon Pedersen, and Malcolm Sproul. To learn more about these interviews, visit the Oral History Center’s website.

This episode was produced by Shanna Farrell and Amanda Tewes, and edited by Shanna Farrell. Thanks to Andrew Deakin and Anjali George for production assistance. 

Original music by Paul Burnett.

Album image North Peak from Clayton Ranch. Episode 1 image Mary Bowerman Trail. All photographs courtesy of Scott Hein. For more information about these images, visit Hein Natural History Photography.



Amanda Tewes: EPISODE 1: Save Mount Diablo’s Past

[Theme music]

Shanna Farrell: Welcome to The Berkeley Remix, a podcast from the Oral History Center at the University of California, Berkeley. You’re listening to our seventh season, “Fifty Years of Save Mount Diablo.”

Farrell: I’m Shanna Farrell. 

Tewes: And I’m Amanda Tewes. We’re interviewers at the Center and the leads for the Save Mount Diablo Oral History Project.

Tewes: This season we’re headed east of San Francisco to Mount Diablo in Contra Costa County. In this three-part mini-series, we look at land conservation through the lens of Save Mount Diablo, a local grassroots organization. 

Farrell: It’s been doing this work since December 1971—that’s fifty years. This season focuses on the organization’s past, present, and future. Join us as we celebrate this anniversary and the impact that Save Mount Diablo has had on land conservation in the Bay Area and beyond.

Farrell: In this episode, we explore Save Mount Diablo’s past.

Farrell: ACT 1: Why Save Mount Diablo?

[Soundbed- bird noises]

Tewes: Mount Diablo looms large in the landscape of the East Bay. It’s vast, with an elevation of  3,849 feet. It’s home to coyotes, bobcats, black-tailed deer, gray foxes, and peregrine falcons who live among bright, colorful flora like manzanita trees and fairy-lantern flowers. Snow blankets the mountaintop in the winter. Mount Diablo covers 20,000 acres, which make up a California State Park. It is surrounded by 90,000 acres of protected land, where Alameda whipsnakes and red-legged frogs and California poppies scatter. It’s located in Contra Costa County in The East Bay, which is about forty miles east of San Francisco.

[Soundbed- traffic noises]

Farrell: Mount Diablo almost didn’t look this way. In fact, here’s Malcolm Sproul describing the surrounding area in the mid century:

Malcolm Sproul:  It was exploding. I mean, this was a period of very rapid residential development, freeways being built. I mean, I remember as a kid going out to Walnut Creek, and a two-lane road to go out through Lafayette and Orinda, for example. 

Farrell: Population in the East Bay boomed during WWII, attracting people with wartime jobs. While not everyone stayed when the war ended, those who did were joined by family members. In fact, from 1950 to 1970, the population of the Bay Area grew from 2.6 million to 4.6 million. That’s a 173 percent increase. This meant that housing and infrastructure had to keep up. 

[Soundbed- traffic noises]

Farrell: In the 1950s, the region built highways and freeways, and began construction on BART, the Bay Area’s metro commuter system, to take East Bay residents to their jobs in San Francisco. 

Sproul: The sixties and the seventies, in particular, saw a tremendous amount of this growth. Just conversions of thousands and thousands of acres of land.

Tewes: This could have meant that the East Bay sacrificed open space to development. But this didn’t happen, and we can thank conservation activists for that.

Farrell: As a response to these pressures, a group of six people got together to take action. Save Mount Diablo held its first meeting on December 7, 1971 at Heather Farms Garden Center in Walnut Creek, California. Their goals were simple: save the land, support the state park, and prevent further development in the East Bay. 

Egon Pedersen: There was just one day my wife said, “Hey, I see here in the paper there’s a, there’s a group called Save Mount Diablo. They want to save the mountain.” And I said, “No, how could that be?” Whenever we drove into Diablo, down on the stone poles at the road it said, “Mount Diablo State Park.” 

[Soundbed- birds]

Tewes: That was Egon Pedersen. A Danish immigrant who fell in love with the natural beauty of his adoptive home in the East Bay, Egon served as Save Mount Diablo’s first vice president, and then as president from 1974 to 1977. And Egon is right. The existence of the state park was definitely a challenge in conserving Mount Diablo lands. At that first meeting on December seventh, the group addressed this. Here’s how Bob Doyle, one of those first six activists, remembers this:

Bob Doyle: And I really thought that was a hurdle because most people look at it and go, “Look, there’s no threat there, it’s all state park.” From the very beginning, the discussions at the formal meetings was really focused on these discussions of, you know, what do we do, what’s this, what’s this property, there’s no money, how do we get some money? So it was very, very clear that it was to be 100 percent focused on expanding the state park. It was really focused on the fact that Mount Diablo State Park had not been receiving its fair share, as we looked at it, of statewide money. 

Farrell: But Mary Bowerman and Arthur Bonwell, the two co-founders of Save Mount Diablo, were ready to take on this challenge. Mary was a botanist and wrote her dissertation on the flora of the mountain. Art was active in both the Contra Costa Park Council and the Sierra Club, where his involvement with Mount Diablo started. Here’s Bob again, talking about his first impressions of Mary.

Doyle: I remember being very nervous of meeting this prestigious PhD and pioneer botanist from Mount Diablo. Well, she had a British accent. She was very quiet, and she had these eyes that would penetrate you, and just very curious and very, I would say, cautious in her conversations. 

Tewes: Bob also worked closely with Art Bonwell. They met at the first meeting of Save Mount Diablo. 

Doyle: Art was, you know, an active bicyclist, Diablo Wheelman, and was an engineer by trade, by vocation, and just very interesting, probing, strong, asking questions.

[Soundbed- noises of protest]

Farrell: The early 1970s was a moment of activism in politics, social justice, and inspired a burgeoning environmental movement. Young people played important roles in all of this.

Doyle: We’re talking about Vietnam War, we’re talking about Nixon, we’re talking about assassinations of presidents. It was very tumultuous. 

Tewes: There were a lot of grassroots environmental organizations popping up all over the country, many of which of were in the Bay Area. Think Save the Bay, Save the Redwoods League, Sierra Club, and more. This moment also saw the publishing of foundational books, like Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, A Sand County Almanc by Aldo Leopold, and Population Bomb by Paul Erhlich. 

Farrell: This, on top of major environmental disasters like the Cuyahoga River repeatedly catching on fire and the Santa Barbara oil spill—both in 1969—all set the stage for a strong environmental movement in California and beyond.

[Soundbed- noises of protest]

Doyle: It was just a very heady time in the late sixties and early seventies. The first Earth Day happened, it was the environmental movement, so I think a lot of young people were looking for something positive to do, and you couldn’t be more positive than to try to save the earth. And because of the guidance of these other people, we really focused on the local things. 

Tewes: Mostly, though, it was people from the area who cared about the fate of the mountain. 

Doyle: It was really focused on our immediate area. Well, if you look at the early membership, the majority was from Concord, of the members. Peg Kovar, that was Walnut Creek, and Egon Pedersen was Danville. But most of them were from the area, so we cared about our area and Mount Diablo being the center point of that. 

Farrell: The group had their work cut out for them. In 1971, the state park was confined to only the top of the mountain, just 6,788 acres of the summit. None of the low-elevation trails that exist today were around then. Also, none of the city or regional open spaces had been created yet, but the threat of real estate development was closing in on the mountain.

[Theme music]

Tewes: ACT 2: What did it take to save Mount Diablo?

Tewes: It took a mixture of youthful energy and experienced activists, a reliance on political goodwill, and money. 

[Soundbed- cash register ]

Tewes: These things always require money. 

Pedersen: We were just trying to be a little, peaceful group getting money from contributions, buy a piece of land. 

Farrell: People had a strong desire to take action. In this vein, Egon wrote to Gov. Ronald Reagan—yes, that one—to try to secure funding for the fledgling organization. 

Pedersen: Well, I just wrote to him that Mount Diablo was a very important recreational area, and I said if he could consider buying some land that I really, really, really would appreciate it. And lo and behold, a couple of months after, he actually allocated money for buying land around Mount Diablo. Yeah, he wrote me a nice letter and said he really appreciated I was telling him about how important it was to expand the land in such an area with such a big population, it was important to have a place for recreation that people could go and enjoy their life; also for the wildlife on the mountain, it needed more space so it could survive. 

Tewes: Bob Doyle remembers the contributions of East Bay representatives in Sacramento like John Nejedly and Daniel Boatwright.

Doyle: You know, it was all about Sacramento money, very little was raised by Save Mount Diablo in the early years, but it was really about getting bond measures on the ballot and getting them passed and getting the appropriations through the state budget. And we had champions in Sacramento to do that; Boatwright and Nejedly being the foremost at that time. 

Farrell: Save Mount Diablo needed this money to buy land and to expand the state park beyond those initial 7,000 acres. But state funds weren’t the only way to support the organization. In order to raise the money, Save Mount Diablo had to raise awareness of the organization’s mission to get people to donate to its cause. 

Doyle: So we really started trying to get articles in the paper about what’s threatened and how beautiful Mount Diablo is, and really started picking off environmental writers in the newspaper. 

Tewes: Not to mention, Save Mount Diablo had bumper stickers. Group members could drive around Contra Costa County with their cars as moving billboards for the organization. Even teenage Malcolm Sproul had one! Here’s Bob and Egon Pedersen again, talking about another mechanism for raising both money and awareness.

Doyle: One of the early things we did was there were a lot of walkathons and hike-a-thons. I guess that’d be comparable to GoFundMe now. That was the mechanism for people to raise money. 

Pedersen:  We made between 2 and $3,000 every time we had a walkathon, so at that time, that was pretty good.

[Soundbed – cash register]

Doyle: That really got more people and kids involved because they were doing the hike. 

Farrell: Indeed, one of the strengths of Save Mount Diablo was that it attracted people of all ages. This fostered intergenerational communication, with a younger crowd learning from their elders, and the older activists drawing inspiration from youth. People like Mary Bowerman had lessons to impart to the younger members. As to what Malcolm Sproul learned from Mary? 

Sproul: I think it’s focus. Mary had properties she knew to be important. She had a picture, a big picture. She had the vision of wanting to see it protected. She wasn’t a big political advocacy person, but she was big on wanting other people to buy the property. And if we could, if we had the money, to also protect property. So she was very, very much focused on people like the State acquiring land, on getting bonds passed and the money could be used for acquisition. She knew the land and she knew the things she felt needed to be protected. 

Tewes: Here’s Bob Doyle again.

Doyle: When you’re young and you have these kind of older wizards, it’s interesting because if you’d say anything, they’d say, “Are you sure, how do you know that?” I mean, it’s kind of the testing of facts to be careful. 

Tewes: Another generational difference in their approach to saving Mount Diablo had to do with their comfort in participating in the democratic process.

Doyle: Who wants to go to a meeting for three hours, four hours? And I think that generation of people was really used to sitting at a board meeting for four hours. Another very wonderful environmental activist was Jean Siri, who was an urban activist in west Contra Costa. But she would be famous for sitting at a board of supervisors meeting knitting the whole time, you know, hours and hours sitting there and then finally got up, and basically she probably yelled at the board of supervisors. She was very, very strong and wonderful. And people were willing to put in that time, and a lot of that time, you’re fidgeting.

[Soundbed – applause, gavel noise]

Farrell: This may have been a new strategy for Bob and his generation, but there was space for young people, too.

Doyle: The emphasis there, although most people in Save Mount Diablo were, you know, in their fifties and sixties at the time, they really wanted a voice for youth at the time and so they really encouraged me to speak. 

Tewes: By fostering the connection between different generations of activists, everyone felt like they had buy-in, everyone felt like they had a role in saving Mount Diablo. This made the group special and helped build a membership base. Members used this approach to reach the larger community—they went out and talked to people, meeting them where they were. As president, Egon Pedersen did just that. 

Pedersen: And I figured the only way I can do it [is] to offer something for them. I can’t just go and knock on doors and everything. I called all the libraries, for one thing, and asked if they’d like a talk on Mount Diablo. And of course, all the libraries wanted that. 

Farrell: Egon took a people-centered approach in understanding the cultural history of the mountain, so the community understood the significance of saving it. 

Pedersen: Then after that, it got to be a lot of word of mouth. There was always somebody that said, “Hey, can you come and talk in my school? Can you come and talk to my class? Can you come and talk to the garden society? Can you talk to the women’s club in Berkeley?” I loved to do that. So I thought it was a good way to spread the word.

Tewes: Another approach that supporters used to convince people of the value of the mountain was photographs. One such photographer was Bob Walker. Bob was well-known for taking beautiful pictures of the sweeping landscape of Mount Diablo and its surroundings. He would often show up to someone’s house unannounced and ask if he could walk on their property to take the photos. 

[Soundbed- camera shutter clicks] 

Tewes: He got to know a lot of people—and potential supporters—this way. Bob Doyle remembers the value of this to Save Mount Diablo.

[Soundbed- camera shutter clicks] 

Doyle: Bob had a knack of educating people with incredible enthusiasm without being confrontational. It was more of always promoting and educating the beauty of something through his pictures rather than being in a fight. That was Bob’s skill, he could really convince people. And he went around doing slideshows at libraries and schools and in chambers of commerce and all over to show the beauty of the parks we had and why these areas need to be preserved. 

[Theme music]

Farrell: ACT 3: What sustained Save Mount Diablo?

Scott Hein: When the organization was first founded, Art and Mary thought that their work would be done in five years. They had no intention of the organization being around in perpetuity. They figured they’d protect the lands around the mountain and be done with it, and they’d be able to go on to other pursuits. Now of course, that didn’t happen. [laughs] And it obviously wasn’t realistic. 

Farrell: That was Scott Hein. He and his wife, Claudia, are longtime supporters of Save Mount Diablo. Scott served as board president from 2013 to 2019, and as a conservation photographer for the organization. Scott remembered that despite what the founders thought, the organization was not able to accomplish all its goals in the first five years. In fact, it took much longer than that. 

Tewes: In order to create longevity and continue to work towards its mission to conserve lands, Save Mount Diablo members realized they needed to formalize their grassroots organization. They established a non-profit in 1980.

Doyle: To get more broader donations from people, we needed the legal status of donations and nonprofit status. There were some concerns about that, but we hired this incredible lawyer, Robert Jasperson, who was a longtime lawyer for Save the Redwoods League and was the Sierra Club lawyer. I knew him from Save the Redwoods League and so I asked him when he was in more private practice if he’d help, so he did the incorporation stuff for us and just said, “It’s just much better for your IRS designation and stuff to get the donations, and it’s a formality that we needed to do.” 

[Theme music]

Farrell: This set Save Mount Diablo up for the long term.

[Theme music]

Farrell: In 1988, Save Mount Diablo was 16 years old. And it was a big year for the group. It protected several parcels of land on the mountain, including Castle Rock and the Boy Scout Camp Force in Lower Rock City. It helped pass a couple of critical measures, like the State Park Bond and Measure AA, which provided $225 million to the East Bay Regional Park District, one of Save Mount Diablo’s allies, which was also dedicated to preserving open space. It also grew its network from 400 supporters to 1,500. But yet, there was still more work to do.

Tewes: Up until that year, the organization was entirely run by volunteers. Though there was a core group of volunteers who had been faithfully active for more than a decade, others would come and go. Save Mount Diablo knew it needed to hire someone to keep working towards its goal of expanding the state park and protecting the surrounding lands. Here’s Bob Doyle talking about the events that led up to hiring the organization’s first staff member. 

Doyle: I had gotten a grant and we hired a college student out of St. Mary’s College to do a nonprofit organizational study for what Save Mount Diablo should do and what the options were. John Steere did the study, saying, you know, “If we really want to do x, y, and z, you need to hire somebody, and here are your opportunities to do that.” So that was the step to say, “Okay, we could hire somebody part time.” 

Farrell: The first person that Save Mount Diablo hired was Seth Adams, a young environmentalist who had moved to the Bay Area a few years earlier from the East Coast. This was also in 1988.

Doyle: We interviewed a bunch of people, and we weren’t paying much. And Seth came out as the most committed and articulate. He got the job and has continued to do that. He had the courage and the knowledge to get through stuff that was really difficult. There was just so much development being proposed, and he got very good. We did some initiatives and referendums because that’s what we had to do at the time.

Tewes: Hiring Seth gave Save Mount Diablo the ability to keep going. 

Seth Adams: When I was hired at Save Mount Diablo, I didn’t try to just focus on getting two things done. I threw fifty things up in the air and wanted to work on all fifty. [laughs] That’s sort of the structure of an entire organization, which is what I helped create, in terms of going from all volunteer to professional. It turns out that starting things, for me, I think is the most important thing, and scaling up just happened through a lot of work through a lot of people, but if you get things rolling, they take on a life of their own.

Tewes: After Seth was hired, the volunteer base only grew larger. Save Mount Diablo was even able to add more staff in following years. Together, they were able to accomplish a lot. In 1989, the organization acquired the 631-acre Morgan Ranch, protected 330 acres of open space on Crystyl Ranch and a portion of Round Valley, and fought three Contra Costa landfill proposals that would have encroached on the area that they were trying to save. From 1991 to 1993, they stopped development at Chaparral Spring and Clayton Ranch. And from 1993 to 2004, they expanded Lime Ridge Open Space, Round Valley, Riggs Canyon, a part of Black Diamond Mines, and Cowell Ranch.

Farrell: By 2007, Save Mount Diablo had expanded the state park to 20,000 acres. Now, the park encompassed the entirety of Mount Diablo. The founders’ original mission had finally come to fruition. What’s more, around the mountain, the group protected 90,000 acres of land, and counting. Here’s Scott Hein again talking about these accomplishments. 

Hein: When we were founded in 1971, there were just under 6,000 acres of protected parkland in our area of interest, and well over 110,000 acres today. That’s success, by any way you measure it. 

[Soundbed- animal noises]

Tewes: Saving Mount Diablo has truly been a team effort. 

Hein: Save Mount Diablo, even now, but even more so back then, has been an organization that really punches above its weight, so to speak. We accomplished far more than an organization our size should, and that’s because of the hard-working staff, but also the board members and other volunteers that made it happen. 

Farrell: This effort to save the mountain is emblematic of a time and a place. It’s part of the Bay Area’s DNA. Save Mount Diablo could only have grown out of this burgeoning environmental movement when there were a lot of eager activists in the Bay Area. And in the early seventies, there was still time to save Mount Diablo. Here’s Ted Clement, the organization’s current executive director. 

Ted Clement: The San Francisco Bay Area is known for advocacy. And Save Mount Diablo is a leader in using advocacy so effectively to help with land conservation, and that’s a proud part of our history.

[Theme music]

Tewes: Join us next time as we learn about Save Mount Diablo’s current work.

Farrell: Thanks for listening to “Fifty Years of Save Mount Diablo” and The Berkeley Remix, a podcast from the Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. Founded in 1953, the Center records and preserves the history of California, the nation, and our interconnected world. This episode was produced by Shanna Farrell and Amanda Tewes. 

Tewes: This episode features interviews from our Save Mount Diablo Oral History Project and includes clips from: Seth Adams, Ted Clement, Bob Doyle, Scott Hein, Egon Pedersen, and Malcolm Sproul. A special thanks to Save Mount Diablo for supporting this project. Thanks to Andrew Deakin and Anjali George for production assistance. To learn more about these interviews, visit our website listed in the show notes. Thanks for listening, and join us next time!


The Oral History Center Presents The Berkeley Remix Season 7: “Fifty Years of Save Mount Diablo”

album photo
North Peak from Clayton Ranch. Photograph courtesy of Scott Hein. For more information about this image, visit Hein Natural History Photography.

Set in sprawling Contra Costa County, forty miles east of San Francisco, the “Fifty Years of Save Mount Diablo” podcast season celebrates fifty years of environmental activism and land conservation around Mount Diablo through the consequential work of a local grassroots organization—Save Mount Diablo.

In season 7 of The Berkeley Remix, a podcast of the Oral History Center at UC Berkeley, we head to Mount Diablo in Contra Costa County. In the three-part series, “Fifty Years of Save Mount Diablo,” we look at land conservation in the East Bay through the lens of Save Mount Diablo, a local grassroots organization. It’s been doing this work since December 1971—that’s fifty years. This season focuses on the organization’s past, present, and future. Join us as we celebrate this anniversary and the impact that Save Mount Diablo has had on land conservation in the Bay Area and beyond.

This season features interview clips from the Save Mount Diablo Oral History Project.

A special thanks to Save Mount Diablo for supporting this project. 

Episode 1: “Save Mount Diablo’s Past.” In this episode, we explore Save Mount Diablo’s past. From its origins in the environmental movement to its successful political activism to its incorporation as a nonprofit, Save Mount Diablo built a solid foundation for fifty years of land conservation. This episode asks: why save Mount Diablo? What did it take to save Mount Diablo? What sustained Save Mount Diablo?

This episode features interviews from our Save Mount Diablo Oral History Project and includes clips from: Seth Adams, Ted Clement, Bob Doyle, Scott Hein, Egon Pedersen, and Malcolm Sproul. To learn more about these interviews, visit the Oral History Center’s website.

Episode 2: “Save Mount Diablo’s Present.” In this episode, we explore Save Mount Diablo’s present. From supporting ballot measures and fundraising efforts to cultivating relationships with nature enthusiasts and artists to collaborating with outside partners, Save Mount Diablo continues to “punch above its weight.” This episode asks: now that Save Mount Diablo has conserved the land, how does it take care of it? How does Save Mount Diablo continue to build a community?  How are artists activists, and how do they help support Save Mount Diablo? How does Save Mount Diablo sustain partnerships to conserve land? 

This episode features interviews from our Save Mount Diablo Oral History Project and includes clips from: Seth Adams, Bob Doyle, Ted Clement, Abby Fateman, Jim Felton, John Gallagher, Scott Hein, John Kiefer, Shirley Nootbaar, Malcolm Sproul, and Jeanne Thomas. To learn more about these interviews, visit the Oral History Center’s website.

Episode 3: “Save Mount Diablo’s Future.” In this episode, we explore Save Mount Diablo’s future. From addressing the challenges of COVID-19 to fundraising efforts to protecting land and biodiversity in the entire Diablo Range to mitigating the impacts of climate change to expanding membership and partnerships, Save Mount Diablo still has a lot of good work ahead. This episode asks: what challenges does Save Mount Diablo face today? What can Save Mount Diablo do about climate change? What does the future of Save Mount Diablo look like?

This episode features interviews from our Save Mount Diablo Oral History Project and includes clips from: Seth Adams, Burt Bassler, Ted Clement, Bob Doyle, Abby Fateman, Jim Felton, John Gallagher, Scott Hein, and Egon Pedersen. To learn more about these interviews, visit the Oral History Center’s website.

Changing My Perspective: Save Mount Diablo and the Study of Oral History

Andrew Deakin is a sophomore at UC Berkeley majoring in political science. He enjoys backpacking, reading, and tending to his vegetable garden. He was an Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program intern with the Oral History Center in spring 2022, during which time he worked on a podcast for the Save Mount Diablo Oral History Project.

Andrew Deakin, OHC URAP intern

Last fall, combing through undergraduate research positions, a post caught my eye. The Oral History Center was looking for undergraduates to work on a podcast documenting the history of the conservation organization Save Mount Diablo. Finally! I was astounded that a research opportunity could indulge so many of my interests: journalism, history, podcasts, public policy, and, of course, my love for the outdoors. After reading the project description, I knew I would apply. Funnily enough, it wasn’t until I had my interview for the position that I learned exactly what oral history is. Since working on this project, I’ve developed an appreciation for a discipline that, frankly, I didn’t even know existed until recently. I found oral history to be an exciting, unadulterated way to engage with the past. Instead of reading from a dry, unappealing textbook, I learned to experience history through the recorded lives of individual people. Although one person’s perspective doesn’t always offer a complete historical picture, it’s invigorating to witness lived history through the personal experience, and sometimes life story, of another person.

One interview in the Save Mount Diablo Oral History Project that I made a deep personal connection with was with long-time supporter of Save Mount Diablo, John Kiefer. Like most of the interviews I reviewed, John’s began with his childhood. John was born in 1934 in Menlo Park. He was raised in a rural environment. For John, Menlo Park was “Pure, pure country. Try to grasp a vision of not very many homes, and most of the homes that were there were built in the late 1800s. There were some newer ones that had been built in the thirties and forties and fifties—that was new.” Maybe I have a romantic view of a rural childhood, but I couldn’t help but envy this aspect of John’s upbringing. I grew up in suburban Orange County, California. Try to grasp a vision of many identical homes, most built in the last 30 years, that are spread evenly like butter over what once must have been pristine Southern California chaparral.

Later in John’s interview, he put my experience into words. John said, “The average person, unique and marvelous, [isn’t] connected to nature.” John calls this modern experience of feeling disconnected with nature “Nature Deficit Disorder,” which he thinks “is a serious problem among our youth.” I’m thankful that as I grew up, I was a member of my local Boy Scout troop where I garnered my love for the outdoors. We often went camping in Caspers Regional Park, and I had the chance to spend time camping and backpacking in the Anza-Borrego Desert, Zion National Park in Utah, and Catalina Island. These experiences were especially transformative for me, and I fostered some of my strongest friendships while in the outdoors. John’s interview gave me a historical perspective to realize that the way I and many people of my generation are raised is novel, and perhaps not healthy either. John does amazing work combatting this issue, and I found his tenacity to get youth involved in the outdoors inspiring.

After a stint in the military, John decided he wanted to travel. For John, his decision was simple. He remarks, “I had a yearning to travel, and so I had gone to school with a few good friends from Central and South America, and I said, ‘Well, that’s the place for me.’” John’s retelling of his early adulthood was informative of my own experience. I, too, yearned to travel and, much like John, set my eyes on a foreign country somewhat arbitrarily and decided I would spend this summer there. I’ve been taking French courses and enrolled in the French Department’s summer abroad program in Paris. It was heartwarming to hear John recollect so aptly what the archetype of young adulthood is. John reminisces, “So what was that period of my life about? Well, it was, in fact, like the fable…where one leaves home with a bag of clothes…in search of the holy grail, which simply means…to start to experience who you are beyond your family.” John’s retelling of his young adulthood relieved some doubts I had about treating this period of my life so whimsically. John’s interview taught me it’s okay to take risks and to find myself while I’m still young. John’s existentialist philosophy really stuck with me, and I thank him and the process of oral history for leaving me with that. In the end, John applied his love of nature to his work with Save Mount Diablo. I hope that, given John’s experience, I will be able to apply my own love of the outdoors in my future work.

I’m honored to have partaken in the production of the Save Mount Diablo podcast for its fiftieth anniversary. It’s a historical practice I never considered, and I’m left with new tools to better understand history going forward. It was refreshing to do work on a tangible product, something that has real value and will be consumed by a wider audience. Learning about the lives of all the wonderful people who work for Save Mount Diablo gave me both a historical framework to understand the land conservation in the East Bay and the personal wisdom from these peoples’ life stories. This project informed me about the process of podcast production and storytelling, something I thought I might enjoy, but never had the chance to pursue. Although John’s interview impacted me the most, we did not use much of his material for the podcast. Deciding which quotes neatly weaved into the narrative we were telling taught me how to tell a compelling story and when to cut content when necessary. Now, as the semester is ending, I understand the processes, some difficult and some exhilarating, but all satisfying, to produce this kind of media. It has given me the experience to determine where I might go from here and if I have a future working in the media. I thank the Oral History Center and my URAP mentors, Shanna Farrell and Amanda Tewes, for this fulfilling and incredible opportunity, and I hope this research opportunity continues for future undergraduates to discover the joys of oral history.

Find the interview mentioned here and all our oral histories from the search feature on our home page. You can search by name, key word, and several other criteria.

Growth and (Re)connection: My Experience with the Save Mount Diablo Oral History Project

Anjali George is a junior at UC Berkeley majoring in Sociology. She enjoys reading, dancing and being in nature. She was an Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program intern with the Oral History Center in spring 2022, during which time she worked on a podcast for the Save Mount Diablo Oral History Project.

Anjali George, OHC URAP intern

When I joined the Save Mount Diablo Oral History Project offered through The Oral History Center’s Berkeley Remix podcast, I really did not have any idea what I was doing—I had no experience in oral history, very little knowledge of Save Mount Diablo and no understanding of podcasts beyond the fact that I enjoy listening to them. Yet, I knew immediately that this was something I deeply wanted to do. Despite my lack of experience, I have always been fascinated by the practice of oral history and the importance of documenting and sharing history in a way that is accessible to the public. From what little I knew of Save Mount Diablo at the time (a land trust and conservation organization in the East Bay), I felt drawn to its mission and values, and I knew I wanted to be part of this effort to celebrate and preserve its history through the podcast.

 As I worked through the Save Mount Diablo interviews that had been compiled for this oral history project, I learned so much more about the organization and environmental conservation in general, as well as about myself and my own relationship with the environment. I think what I initially found compelling about the organization was its focus on fostering education and community in order to sustain its more physical goals, like fundraising and land conservation. Ted Clement, who has been Save Mount Diablo’s executive director since 2015, had so many insightful thoughts and experiences that he shared in his interview. Hearing him speak about how the climate crisis, at its core, is “a materialization of our very poor relationship with nature,” very clearly put the organization’s education branch into perspective. Ted explained that the widespread disconnect between people and nature calls for an entire cultural realignment, which is where education comes into play. After stepping into his role in the organization, Ted immediately prioritized education as a primary goal, so that the broader community can start to transform its cultural values and develop a healthier, more meaningful relationship with nature. He spoke of earth-centered cultures, in which nature is considered sacred, placed “at the center of the value system.” Listening to Ted’s interview, it became clear that Save Mount Diablo is more than just a land trust and conservation organization—its efforts to spread awareness and educate the public, coupled with its desire to connect people to nature and to one another, make its work so much more impactful in creating sustainable change.

 Even with my lack of oral history experience prior to this project, I have always found it so crucial to understand history in general, not only to learn from the past, but also to preserve it. And in that sense, I have a deep admiration for the practice of oral history and the way it preserves and passes along different histories, especially regarding topics and perspectives that often get overshadowed or overlooked. Working with Ted’s interview—as well as all of the other interviews that had been conducted—really reinforced the importance of oral history for me, in the sense that hearing the history from those who actually experienced it adds so much more depth and understanding to the story. On the more technical side, I hadn’t previously understood the complexities of creating a podcast—or more broadly, even taking primary sources and turning them into a developed, cohesive story. By listening to the interviews and reading through the transcripts, I quickly began to recognize what pieces of information were important to get across to the audience. From there, I learned how to develop a narrative that conveys the relevant information while also speaking to the audience and making them care about the story. Even the thought process that goes into crafting a compelling story—drawing on charismatic speakers, finding quotes that are both significant to the story and also entertaining to hear, summarizing information that might be too dense or nuanced for an audience to bother sitting through—there are so many small details to take into consideration to be able to turn those initial interviews into a finished product. 

I learned so much more than I could have expected from working on this project—about working with primary sources and creating a story, about environmental conservation, about myself and how I want to move through this world—and I’ll continue to carry this experience with me and apply it in other aspects of my life and my learning. I’ve learned how to look at any given information and pull out the important themes, how to string different stories together to paint a broader picture, how to think about what appeals to an audience and how to make them care. Even outside of a storytelling framework, these skills easily transfer over to different parts of my life, from critically analyzing academic content to carrying conversations in my daily life. Moreso, hearing Save Mount Diablo’s history and accomplishments, even hearing how its relationship with nature and conservation efforts has changed over the years, has genuinely inspired me to rethink my own relationship with nature and what I can do in my own life to reconnect with the natural world around me. In this tumultuous time, with the pandemic and the increasing severity of the climate crisis, I think it is very easy for people to feel hopeless or to feel like the damage done is irreversible. However, I believe documenting Save Mount Diablo’s history and its accomplishments is an important reminder that there are people on the ground putting in the effort, doing the work that needs to be done, creating change and making a real impact on the climate crisis. I think this podcast can be not only a celebration of Save Mount Diablo’s work, but also a source of hope and motivation for the listening audience to persevere and to keep doing our part—no matter how big or small—and I am beyond grateful for the opportunity to have taken part in this project.

Find the interview mentioned here and all our oral histories from the search feature on our home page. You can search by name, key word, and several other criteria.

Merritt Price: Building the Design Department at the Getty

Merritt and Teddy
Merritt Price and Teddy Getty at the opening of the “J. Paul Getty Life and Legacy” exhibition, September 24, 2016. Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum.

I’ve been interviewing for the J. Paul Getty Trust Oral History Project for several years, and it is a continual pleasure to learn about employees and operations across this large organization. But rarely do I come across a longtime employee whose work for the Getty Trust has taken them across departments, programs, and even physical sites. This is what made my interview with Merritt Price so unique. In fall 2020, I conducted a series of oral history interviews with Merritt Price, the former head of the Design Department (now Museum Design Department, 1995-2020).

Merritt Price is the former head of the Design Department (now Museum Design Department) at the J. Paul Getty Trust, which he ran from 1995-2020. Price grew up in Belleville, Ontario, Canada, and moved to Toronto in 1980 to attend the Ontario College of Art (now Ontario College of Art and Design). Price worked for several design firms in Toronto, including starting his own practice called Tangram, before accepting a position with the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1990. He began his work with the J. Paul Getty Trust in 1995, founding what was then the Exhibition Design Department. 

Find this interview and all our oral histories from the search feature on our home page. You can search by name, key word, and several other criteria.

When Merritt Price joined the Getty in 1995, he needed to build the then-Exhibition Design Department from the ground up. This involved defining the Department’s work as not only about aesthetic concerns like text labels and display cases, but also about a larger visitor experience—where museum goers walk and sit, and how they interact with the space. As such, Price assembled a multidisciplinary team to create “one-stop shopping” for design at the Getty Trust. 

In thinking about why it was important for the Getty to establish the Design Department, rather than rely on design consultants, Price explained, 

“I think it’s also noteworthy that working in-house at a museum, as opposed to being in a consulting office that might be doing design for museums or galleries, that you have a different perspective, because you’re right in it and you’re in it all the time. It’s a little bit more laboratory-like where your work product is right there outside the door in the gallery. You can walk through it, you can see visitors using it.”

Over the twenty-five years he worked at the Getty, Price and his team handled designs for major projects in the organization’s history. Indeed, Price’s first task included design work for the Getty Center, which opened to the public in 1997. In addition to addressing gallery spaces, Price also created a wayfinding system with signposts to orient visitors on the large Getty Center campus. He later worked on the redesigns at the Getty Villa. 

Price and his team also designed for exhibitions across the Getty Trust, including Devices of Wonder: From the World in a Box to Images on a Screen, Foundry to Finish: The Making of a Bronze Sculpture, and Michelangelo: Mind of the Master. However, Price was particularly involved in the exhibition J. Paul Getty Life and Legacy, for which he pitched the concept and led a team of curators in creating content. Listen as he explains the idea behind the show:

I have a background in museum work, and I felt confident speaking with Mr. Price about his vision for museum spaces and the practical necessities like spacing around pedestals. However, I still learned a great deal about technical innovations, as well as the impact of design both on exhibitions and on the other spaces in which visitors use—from trams to gift shops to restaurants. This interview was both personally enjoyable and is a great source of information about the construction and redesign of the Getty Center and the Getty Villa.

To learn more about Merritt Price’s life and work, read his oral history transcript here. Find this interview and all our oral histories from the search feature on our home page. You can search by name, key word, and several other criteria.

Shirley Chisholm, Women Political Leaders, and the Oral History Center collection

By Mollie Appel-Turner

On Jan 25, 1972, Congresswomen Shirley Chisholm, representative for New York State’s Twelfth District and the first African American woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, announced her candidacy for president. With this announcement, Chisholm became both the first African American to run for a major party’s presidential nomination and also the first woman ever to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. The UC Berkeley Oral History Center has several interviews that address Chisholm’s trailblazing candidacy. In addition, the Center has numerous interviews with other ground-breaking female politicians.

Shirley Chisholm speaking at microphone.
Shirley Chisholm thanking delegates, Democratic National Convention, Miami Beach, Fla., 3rd session (Photo: Library of Congress)

“Anything that black women do like that, they’re pioneering; they’re the first, or one of the first. Because it takes a lot of guts and militancy and sacrifice to do those things when it isn’t popular.”
— Frances Mary Albrier

Frances Mary Albrier was a woman of numerous accomplishments. A graduate of UC Berkeley, she was an indefatigable opponent of racism, a civil rights activist from the 1920s onward, the first woman elected to Alameda County’s Democratic Central Committee, as well as the first black woman hired by Kaiser Shipyards during World War II. She founded the East Bay Women’s Welfare Club, and her efforts led to the hiring of black women teachers in the Berkeley public schools. Albrier discussed Chisholm’s then-recent candidacy when she was interviewed in 1977 and 1978 as part of a series on women political leaders.

Frances Albrier on sidewalk with picket sign
Frances Albrier leading picket at corner of Sacramento and Ashby, 1939. (Photo: Berkeley Plaques)

Mrs. Chisholm pioneered when she ran for Congress in New York as a black woman. Anything that black women do like that, they’re pioneering; they’re the first, or one of the first. Because it takes a lot of guts and militancy and sacrifice to do those things when it isn’t popular, and it wasn’t popular for a black woman in the East or anywhere. Now, when Mrs. Chisholm ran for president, she did it again. She’s pioneered the way for [others]. Eventually, we’ll have a woman president of the United States. Those doors have been opened. People had looked at her and they’ve talked about a woman running for president. They heard what she had to say. It will be much easier for the next woman who has the ambition to run for president to do so.

Janet West was also interviewed for the women political leaders series, focusing on her work as a Santa Barbara Board of Education member. In the multi-interview volume Women in Politics Volume II, West spoke about how her experiences as a parent influenced her desire to run for office, and both motivated and informed her decisions as a board member. In her 1972 oral history, West discussed the significance of Chisholm’s then-contemporary candidacy:

I think if you’re talking about a large political office, people have the idea that you know, a woman couldn’t stand up under the pressures and maybe couldn’t take all that guff or whatever it is. I think we really have to overcome that type of thing and I’m not sure how many votes Shirley Chisholm will get just because she’s a woman, certainly not because she’s black but because she’s a woman and I don’t think people really feel that a woman can do all that hard work. It’s a lot of hard work.

Professor Harry Edwards joined UC Berkeley’s department of sociology in 1971. He conducted scholarship in the area of sociology of race and sport and is also renowned for his involvement in the famous Black Power salute on the victory podium at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. In “Harry Edwards: An Oral History,” he discussed his early life and upbringing in addition to his role as a scholar-activist, his time at Berkeley, and his work as a consultant to national football and basketball teams. When he was interviewed as part of the UC Berkeley African American Faculty and Senior Staff oral history project in 2005, Edwards spoke of Chisholm with both the knowledge of a contemporary and the perspective of a sociologist. Edwards discussed Chisholm’s extraordinary independence:

Closeup view of Dr. Harry Edwards at University Hilton. Photo dated: June 12, 1984.
Harry Edwards, 1984 (Photo: Toru Kawana, Los Angeles Herald Examiner Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library via Calisphere)

Shirley Chisholm, first of all, she had one phenomenal liability, and what I call it is the Stevenson syndrome. She was extraordinarily bright. She was extremely intelligent. That’s a phenomenal liability in the convention of the American political scene. She also had an independence to her that put her outside of the authoritative black leadership influence and control circle. The authoritative black leadership influence and control circle tried to get her not to run. They did not feel that it was “time” for a black woman to step out and run for President. She ran without the endorsement of the NAACP, without the endorsement of the Congress of Racial Equality, without the endorsement of SCLC, without the endorsement of Operation PUSH and Jesse Jackson. She ran on her own.

Shirley Chisholm is one of many women politicians discussed in the Oral History Center’s collections. The Oral History Center contains a wide variety of interviews on women in local, state, and national politics. For more on ground-breaking female politicians, the Oral History Center’s Women Political Leaders collection contains interviews that cover almost the entirety of the 20th century, from the suffragists onward. Interviewees include March Fong Eu, the first Asian American woman in the United States to be elected to a state constitutional office; Helen Gahagan Douglas, the first Democratic woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives; and Hope Mendoza Schechter, a member of the Democratic State Central Committee and an activist for both the labor movement and the Mexican American community. The Oral History Center continues to preserve the histories of women leaders in the political sphere and is currently conducting new interviews with female political leaders in the Bay Area Women in Politics and California State Archives projects. For those who wish to learn more, a good place to start is the Oral History Center’s Women in Politics podcast, which has episodes on a variety of important female political leaders of the twentieth century — at the local, state, and national levels — including Francis Albrier.

Mollie Appel-Turner
Mollie Appel-Turner

Mollie Appel-Turner joined the Oral History Center as a student editor in fall 2021. She is currently a fourth-year history student with a concentration in medieval history.

About the Oral History Center

The Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library has interviews on just about every topic imaginable. You can find the interviews mentioned here and all our oral histories from the search feature on our home page. Search by name, keyword, and several other criteria. We preserve voices of people from all walks of life, with varying political perspectives, national origins, and ethnic backgrounds. We are committed to open access and our oral histories and interpretive materials are available online at no cost to scholars and the public.

From the OHC Director: The Gift of Being an Interviewer

The Gift of Being an Interviewer

From years of listening, I’ve learned that we all want to tell our stories and that we want, we need, to be heard.

After close to nineteen years with the Oral History Center — ten of those years serving in a leadership role — I have decided to hang up my microphone and leave my job at Cal. As with any major life transition, reflections naturally pour forth at times like these. I’ve been keeping track of these thoughts in hopes that they might prove interesting to others who have spent so many hours interviewing people about their lives or those who are interested in oral history writ large

For me, learning and practicing oral history interviewing has been a gift. It has made my life richer, allowed me to access insights about human nature that otherwise might have been hidden from me, and offered me the opportunity to see people as the individuals that they are, freed from the stifling confines of presumed identities and expected opinions. 

At OHC, interviewers typically work on a wide variety of projects. We often interview about topics in which we do not already have expertise and thus must develop some fluency with something new to us. Because we contribute to an archive that is to serve the needs of an unforeseeable set of current and future researchers, we naturally interview people who have made their mark in very different fields. This means that we interview people, sometimes at tremendous length, who are not like us and whose life stories and ways of thinking might be very different from our own. There is a well-documented tendency among oral historians to interview our heroes, people whose political ideals jibe with our own, people who can serve protagonists in our histories, people whose voices we want to amplify. At the Oral History Center, this bias is not paramount — rather, we strive to interview people across a broad spectrum of every imaginable category. And while we almost always end up very much liking our interviewees, they need not be our personal heroes and are not required to share our opinions; they only need to be an expert in one thing: their own lives and experiences. 

man and dog
Martin with Daisy McFurpants at Dillon Beach, beginning his first “gap year”.

This way in which we do our work has sent me wide and far and exposed me to a profound diversity of ways of looking at the world. And this multiplicity of perspectives has informed, challenged, engaged, astounded, and, frankly, remade me again and again over the past two decades. It is this essential facet of my work that I consider a gift to my own life.

After having conducted approximately 200 oral histories, ranging in length from ninety minutes to over sixty hours each, I find it a tad difficult at this point to highlight some interviews and not others. Whenever I get asked (as I often do): what was your favorite interview? I used to wrack my brain, endlessly scrolling through all of those experiences, but now I usually just say, “my most recent oral history.” I offer that up because the latest one typically remains most fresh in my own (not always so robust) memory — it is the interview that still retains much of the nuance, content, and feeling for me and that’s why it is “the best.” Still, I want to offer up a few examples from some of my oral histories to show how interviewing has influenced the way I live in the world. 

Moving beyond my comfort zone

I arrived at OHC in July 2003, first spending a year on a fellowship in which I was given the opportunity to finish my book manuscript, Contacts Desired (2006), and then in July 2004 I started as a staff interviewer. My areas of expertise were social history, the history of sexuality and gender, and the history of communications. My first major oral history assignment? A multiyear project on the history of the major integrated healthcare system, Kaiser Permanente. Not only was this topic well outside my area of expertise, it also was not intrinsically interesting to me. But this was a new job and a big opportunity, so with an imposing hill in front of me, I decided to climb it. The project went on for five years and during that time I conducted most of the four dozen interviews. The topics ranged from public policy and government regulation to epidemiological research and new approaches to care delivery. I was sensitive to my inexperience with the subject matter so I hit the books and consulted earlier oral histories. I worked hard to get up to speed.

Just a few interviews into the project I had what might be considered an epiphany. After years of studying historical topics that were familiar to me, even deeply personal, I was pleased to discover something new about myself: I loved the study of history and the process of learning something new. Period. With this newly understood drive, I pushed myself deeper into the project and, I hope, was able to be the kind of interviewer that allowed my interviewees to tell the stories that most needed to be told. As it happens, along the way, I learned a great deal about a topic — the US healthcare system — that is exceedingly important, extraordinarily complex, yet necessary to understand. When the push for healthcare reform burst through in 2009 and 2010, I felt informed enough to follow the story and to understand the possibilities and pitfalls endemic to such an effort. In short, if one is open to the challenge, oral history can significantly broaden one’s horizons, educating one in critical areas of knowledge (from the mouths of experts!), and it might even make one into a more informed citizen. 

Questioning what I thought I already knew

The Freedom to Marry oral history project was in many ways the opposite of the Kaiser Permanente project. First off, I could rightfully consider myself an expert in the history of the fight to win the right to marry for same-sex couples and the broader issues surrounding it. After all, I had written a book on gay and lesbian history and had personal experience with the movement when I married my partner in February 2004. Moreover, in graduate school and in preparation for writing my book, I had closely studied the history of activism and social movements. I had gone into this project, then, thinking I had a pretty good idea of what the story would be and what the narrators might say on the topic: this would be another chapter in the decades-long fight for civil rights in which activists engaged in protest and direction action, spoke truth to power, and forced the recalcitrant and prejudiced to change their minds. 

From fall 2015 through spring 2016, I conducted twenty-three interviews with movement leaders and big-name attorneys, but also with young organizers and social media pros; I interviewed people in San Francisco and New York, but also in Maine, Oklahoma, Minnesota, and Oregon. What I learned in these interviews not only made me greatly expand my understanding of the campaign for marriage equality, these interviews also forced me to revise my beliefs about social movements and how meaningful and lasting social change can happen (I write about this more here). As a result of this project, I came to believe that some forms of protest, especially violent direct action, are almost always counterproductive to the purported aims; that castigating people with different ideas and perceived values is wrong and likely to produce a long-term backlash; and that in spite of our differences of opinion on contemporary hot button social issues, the majority of people cherish similar core values — values that bind rather than separate. The interviews demonstrated that by focusing on the shared values, rather than hurling epithets like “homophobe!” or “racist!” at your opponents, the ground is better readied for future understanding to grow. The history I documented surely is more complex than this, but these observations are true to what I found and are a necessary part of the reason this particular movement succeeded as well as it did. Through the Freedom to Marry oral history project, I learned to question the accepted public narrative and even what historians think that they knew on a topic. I recognized that openness to new ideas is a prerequisite of good scholarship. I recognized that most of all I needed to listen to what the oral history interviewees said and to compare that to what I thought I already knew. As a result, I learned to not let what I thought I already knew determine what I could still learn. 

Telling a good story

The oral history interview is a peculiar thing. As ubiquitous as interviewing seems today, from StoryCorps on NPR to countless podcasts featuring interviews around the world to articles in the biggest magazines, the classic oral history method as we practice it at OHC is still quite rare. For our interviews, both interviewer and interviewee put in a great deal of effort in terms of background research, drafting interview outlines, on-the-record interviewing (often in excess of 20 hours with one person), and review and editing of the interview transcript. As a result, our interviews are almost always excellent source material for historians, journalists, and researchers and students of all stripes. But what moves an oral history from “good documentation” to something more is often the quality of the storytelling. Certainly some people, as a result of special experiences, have more fascinating stories to tell than others, but everyone I’ve ever interviewed has many worthwhile stories to tell: from formative family dynamics while young to the universal process of aging. 

The difference between a competently told story and an engrossing one isn’t necessarily the elements of the story but the skill and verve of the storyteller. To hear Richard Mooradian, for example, speak about his life as a tow truck driver on the Bay Bridge and tell what it’s like to tow a big rig on the bridge amidst a driving rain storm is, yes, to learn something new but, more, it is to gain insight into a personality and the passion that drives that person to do what he does. I eventually learned (maybe I’m still learning) that when someone begins a story — and I know now the difference between a question being answered and a story being told — it is time for me to shut up, actively listen, and be open to the interviewee to reveal something meaningful about themselves. After years of helping, I hope, others give the best telling of their own stories, I started to think about my own stories, both the stories themselves but also how they have been told. I’ve come to think that these stories are nothing less than life itself: they are the emotional diaries that we keep with us always and, if we’re good, are prepared to present them to friends and strangers alike. From years of listening, I’ve learned that most of us want to tell our stories and that we want, we need, to be heard. This is a deeply humane impulse and I like to think that nurturing this impulse is at the core of what I’ve learned to be of true value over the past two decades.

These three lessons — openness to moving beyond your comfort zone, questioning what you think you already know, and telling a good story — are not necessarily profound or new. For me, however, they are real and as I return to them regularly in my work and personal life, they have been transformative. They have been a gift. The world of knowledge is massive. Learning something new is a key part of this gift. I’ve long recognized that we live in a world of Weberian “iron cages,” siloed into separate tribes. Listening to my interviewees challenge accepted wisdom inspired me to buck trends, forget the metanarratives, and break free from those cages confining our intellect and spirit. Stories are the most precious things we can possess. Create many of your own and share them widely – and wildly. After close to nineteen years at the Oral History Center, I am departing to do just that: to focus on living new stories and ever striving to tell them better. 

Martin Meeker
Oral History Center
Director (2016-2021)
Acting Associate Director (2012-2016)
Interviewer/Historian (2004-2012)
Postdoc (2003-2004)

T is for Topsy-Turvy: Our interviewees describe when things went haywire

It’s been a topsy-turvy couple of years. But it’s not the only time in recent memory that the world’s turned upside down. As the Omicron variant has once again derailed our path to normalcy, I decided to search the Oral History Center’s collection to see what our interviewees have described as topsy-turvy. Referencing the trivial to some of the most challenging times in recent history, those who used the adjective included household names like Chief Justice Earl Warren and California Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso, as well as artists, urban planners, venture capitalists, and Rosie the Riveters. Topics raised include the rise of Hitler, atomic weapons, the Great Depression, educational equity, campaign finance, messy houses, and downtown San Francisco. Here are the results. 

See below for a detailed description of how to search our collection by a keyword like topsy-turvy.

Mannequin crumpled over broken furniture in a test house after an atomic explosion
Mannequin after the Operation Cue atomic blast, 1955 (Photo: National Archives)

The rise of Hitler

Betty Hardison: Rosie the Riveter World War II American Home Front Oral History Project

“The world was beginning to be topsy-turvy. That was around 1939, when Hitler was not being very friendly.” 

During World War II, Betty Hardison worked at the Mare Island Naval Shipyards for the department responsible for repairing ships damaged during Pearl Harbor. Here she reflects on why she gave up her dream of university and journalism and took her first job.

Betty Hardison
Betty Hardison

When it was time to go off to school, I sold my clarinet and I went to Armstrong Business College in Berkeley. . . . It no longer exists, but it was a very prominent business school at the  time. I took secretarial and all phases of business. But at that time, then, the world was beginning to be topsy-turvy. That was around 1939, when Hitler was not being very friendly. . . . Journalism was a strong goal. I had been editor of the yearbook and things like that, so I thought that I wanted to go to the university and take journalism. But then with the world being turned upside-down, I went for my first job.

Related discussion within the interview: educational expectations for women, life in Calistoga, California during the Great Depression

Downtown San Francisco

Robert Riley: 1988–2000 Curator of Media Arts, SFMOMA 75th Anniversary 

“He found San Francisco to be completely topsy-turvy, vertiginous, and absolutely mad.”

Three screens on a wall with blurry images of street scenes
Steve McQueen’s “Drumroll” on display (Photo: Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art)

Robert Riley, the curator of media arts for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, recalled the inspiration for artist Steve McQueen’s work, Drumroll. McQueen had visited San Francisco during the exhibit of his work, Bear, in the early 1990s. 

When he was in San Francisco, he experienced the hurly-burly, topsy-turvy development of the downtown—there was a lot of construction when he was here. There was traffic mayhem. . . . He found San Francisco to be completely topsy-turvy, vertiginous, and absolutely mad. He work-shopped an idea here of putting a camera lens into the drain hole of a striped orange construction barrel, which he borrowed. He’s a large man. He decided to start pushing the barrel down the street and just telling people to look out.

Related discussion within the interview: acquisition of Steve McQueen’s work, Bear; the development of Drumroll 

Atomic bomb testing

Jean Fuller: Organizing Women: Careers in Volunteer Politics, Law, and Policy Administration

“Was that the mannequin whose head was cut off? Do you remember?”

Jean Fuller, director of women’s activities of the Federal Civil Defense Administration, 1954–58, was present at an atomic bomb test explosion in May 1955, dubbed Operation Cue. Conducted by the Atomic Energy Commission outside of Las Vegas, the test was designed to determine how the blast would affect people (represented by mannequins), food, and various structures. Looking at before and after photos of a test home, Fuller discusses the results with her interviewer, Miriam Stein. 

Jean Fuller in coveralls leaning on a sign that says Civil Defense Administration
Jean Wood Fuller, 1958 (Photo: Federal Civil Defense Administration/Internet Archive)

Fuller: Now, here’s the before scene of that living room where we saw the man all topsy-turvy. As you see there were draperies and there were Venetian blinds. Now, had they had the draperies pulled completely across, the blinds probably would not have done quite as much damage but they were only as people normally leave them.

Stein: Was that the mannequin whose head was cut off? Do you remember?

Fuller: No, he was upside down here someplace.

Stein: That’s right. He was hanging over a chair.

Fuller: Yes, but he undoubtedly would have been dead.

Related discussion within the interview: detailed account of the atomic test

Campaign finance

Earl Warren Sr.: Conversations with Earl Warren on California Government

“Some poor son of a gun with no money but with a great issue will come along, and he’ll just turn them topsy-turvy.”

Earl Warren, who attended UC Berkeley as an undergraduate and also received his law degree from Berkeley Law, was governor of California and chief justice of the United States Supreme Court. Here he discusses campaign finance with his interviewer, Amelia Fry, and an editor from Doubleday and Company, Luther Nichols, who was assisting Warren with his autobiography.

Earl Warren painting
Official paining of Earl Warren as governor of California

Nichols: I think Alioto spent half a million dollars—

 Warren: More than that.

 Nichols: It came out to something like six dollars a voter — six dollars a vote—

 Warren: Well, I’ll tell you. Of course, it’ll go along that way and then some poor son of a gun with no money but with a great issue will come along, and he’ll just turn them topsy-turvy. Now, you take that fellow who was elected—was it governor or senator—in Florida this year [1971]. He was a little country lawyer, Chiles, his name is— He’s a little country lawyer, he had no money of any kind to spend, but he told them he was going to start in the north of Florida and was going to walk clear through the state making his campaign. And, by George, he did. He’d arrange every way that— To start in the morning where there was a television station, and they’d pick him up there, say something about him, and he’d always stop at a television station at night. [Laughter] He got publicity that way and never spent a nickel on it, and he went all through the state, and he beat the whole outfit. [Laughter]

 Fry: And he got all that free TV time!

 Warren: Oh yes, he got all that free TV time.

 Fry: He must have had a million dollars of TV time!

 Warren: [Laughter] And never paid a dime for it!

Related discussion within the interview: decision to run for governor, campaign finance


Justice Cruz Reynoso: California Supreme Court Justice, Professor of Law, Vice-Chair United States Commission on Human Rights, and 2000 Presidential Medal of Freedom Recipient

“Somehow those parents, when they have come to a meeting, have felt uncomfortable, as my parents did when they went to a PTA meeting.”

Cruz Reynoso, who received his law degree from Berkeley Law, was the first Hispanic California State Supreme Court justice. Here he reflects on race relations and parental involvement in schools.  

Cruz Reynoso
Cruz Reynoso (Photo: UC Davis School of Law)

I will tell you a story because it turns things topsy-turvy. I may have told you about this. I was invited to go speak on a Saturday to a parent-student group in a school in the Los Angeles area. When I got there, I noticed that practically everybody involved was Spanish-speaking, and a great majority of the kids there were there, but the leadership of the PTA and practically everybody in charge was Latino. So I asked, “Is this an entirely Latino school? Do you have some other folk?” And they said, “Oh yes, about 20 percent of our students are Anglo.” And I said, “Well, where are the Anglo parents?” And they said, “We don’t know. We keep inviting them; they just don’t come.” I was bemused because I have heard that story told a hundred times about Latino parents by Anglo parents, “You know we keep sending these notices. They don’t come. They must not be—” They don’t say this, but the implication is “they must not be interested in education or must not be interested in their kids.” Well, I just said, “Maybe you ought to do something more so they feel comfortable when they come to these meetings and so on.” Something is not quite right when 20 percent of the parents don’t come to a Saturday function that is supposed to be good for everybody. I don’t know what they have done right or wrong, I really don’t. I nonetheless have the absolute sense that they haven’t done enough. Somehow those parents, when they have come to a meeting, have felt uncomfortable, as my parents did when they went to a PTA meeting. And we as human beings are smart enough to be able to figure things out on how to make those folk feel more comfortable and so on.  

Related discussion within the interview: affirmative action generally, and in particular at UC Berkeley

Venture capital partnerships

Paul Bancroft III: Early Bay Area Venture Capitalists: Shaping the Economic and Commerce, Industry, and Labor Landscape

“Others are saying the world has kind of gone topsy-turvy today—I don’t mean today, but up until recently.”

Paul “Pete” Bancroft was an early participant in the venture capital industry and president, CEO, and director of Bessemer Securities Corporation. Mr. Bancroft also devoted considerable time to The Bancroft Library, which was founded by his great grandfather, Hubert Howe Bancroft. 

Paul Bancroft
Paul “Pete” Bancroft

It finally evolved, unfortunately, to the point where the venture capital partnerships were investing so much money that with the fees they were getting, the 1 percent to 2.5 percent of the assets, that they were making more money that way than they were on the profits that were being made when the investments were sold. It meant that they were really starting to lose sight of really making money on the companies they were investing in. Which is why Arthur Rock and others are saying the world has kind of gone topsy-turvy today— I don’t mean today [2010], but up until recently.

Related discussion within the interview: venture capital partnerships, CEO salaries, Bessemer Venture Partners

The de Young Museum. . . and the Monterey Bay Aquarium

Jim Chappell: Directing the Resurgence of SPUR & Urban Planning in San Francisco

“Who can hate a baby seal?”

Jim Chappell is a retired urban planner whose forty-year career focused on intertwining environmental conservation into urban design. As the director of the nonprofit SPUR (San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association), he helped shape San Francisco into a modern city. Here he discusses design and structural problems with two California landmarks.

Jim Chappell with San Francisco Ferry Building in the background
Jim Chappell

The de Young Museum harkens back to the Midwinter Exposition of 1894, and then opened as the de Young Museum in 1895. It grew topsy-turvy over the years and was badly damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. In fact, they built a steel exoskeleton around it to keep the walls from falling down. It had never been a great museum in terms of collection or building. And they are related. . . . 

The [Monterey Bay] Academy was three or four years behind the de Young, so they got to learn from the mistakes, or at least knew what they were going to be up against when they started. Like the de Young, it was a building that had grown like topsy and was a mess of a building even before the earthquake. And then in the earthquake, pipes broke, which isn’t very good if you’re an aquarium. . . .

A baby seal peaking up out of the water
A baby seal

So in March 2000—this was three-and-a-half years after the first de Young bond vote—there was an $87 million bond on the ballot for the Academy. They needed 66 2/3 percent “yes.” They got sixty-seven. Phew. Just sneaked by. It was a different call than “old art.” It was “kids.” Their poster for the “yes” on the measure was a baby seal. Who can hate a baby seal? 

Related discussion within the interview: California’s proposition system, the adaptability of Golden Gate Park, and the evolution of parks and recreation since the 1800s.

How to search for a keyword like topsy-turvy

You can find the interviews mentioned here and all our oral histories from the search feature on our home page. Search by name, keyword, and several other criteria. From our home page, I entered topsy turvy in the search box and clicked search. (I did not get a different result with/without a hyphen.) There were 18 total results, including when the interviewer used the term or it appeared in an introduction. 

Screen shot of search box

When you get to the results page, you might not initially see any oral histories. This is because the “full text” feature is off by default. On the results page, toggle on “Fulltext search.” A number of oral histories will populate on that page in a list. Please note that sometimes I get better results when I change the default “all the words” to “partial phrase.”

Screen shot of results page showing "full text off"


Screen shot of results page showing full text on

Screen shot showing partial phrase

From the results list, click on any oral history. The next page will provide information about the oral history, such as interviewer, publication date, project, and so on. That page also enables you to read or download a PDF of the oral history. Without downloading, I entered the word “topsy” into the oral history search feature and selected “highlight all.” Then I just clicked on the arrow to be taken directly to the word. Repeat clicking on the arrow to see all examples of the search term within the oral history. 

Screen shot of search within the Oral HIstory

Jill Schlessinger is communications director and managing editor for the Oral History Center. She received her doctorate in history from UC Berkeley.

About the Oral History Center

The Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library has interviews on just about every topic imaginable. We preserve voices of people from all walks of life, with varying political perspectives, national origins, and ethnic backgrounds. We are committed to open access and our oral histories and interpretive materials, including our podcasts and articles, are available online at no cost to scholars and the public.

Objectivity and Subjectivity in Oral History: Lessons from Japanese American Incarceration Stories

Sari Morikawa is an intern at the Oral History Center (OHC) of the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley. She is a Mount Holyoke College history major with a keen interest in American history.

Sari Morikawa, c. 2021

This fall, I had an opportunity to work on the Japanese American Intergenerational Narratives Oral History Project (JAIN) with OHC interviewers Amanda Tewes, Shanna Farrell, and Roger Eardley-Pryor. For this project, I identified oral history interviews discussing Japanese American incarceration during World War II in the OHC’s collections. Later, I compiled and constructed an annotated bibliography for the team, as well as for future researchers. At the same time, I engaged with and acquired knowledge of basic oral history theories and methodologies. Through this project, I had a chance to reflect upon the idea of intersubjectivity and contemplate how this concept plays out in a real oral history project. This entire experience caused me to wonder how my own subjectivity—including my background as a Japanese woman and not an American citizen—might influence how I interpret and share these oral history narratives on Japanese American incarceration.

For the first phase of my internship, I engaged with prominent oral historians’ scholarly work and learned basic oral history methodologies and practices. In particular, the idea of intersubjectivity struck me. In oral history, intersubjectivity means that both the interviewer’s and narrator’s subjectivity, or identities and lived experiences, impact their interpretations of memories and shape the interview they co-create. In particular, Kathleen Blee’s article, “Lessons from Oral Histories of the Klan,” was very influential for me. In this article, Blee sheds light on the idea that historians need to grapple with how to tell people’s stories while considering their own social identities and perspectives, especially when they disagree. After briefly discussing the author’s main argument, Amanda asked me a question, “Do you think history can be objective?” This question struck me. At that point, I believed that objectivity in history was important to avoid romanticization of the past. For example, in order to justify the incarceration plan, the U.S. federal government conceptualized Manzanar as a “holiday on ice” and shared this interpretation with the general public. As a result, some of the oral history transcripts demonstrate (particularly white) narrators’ misunderstanding and misinterpretation of Japanese Americans incarceration. Thus, I believed that history should be neutral to prevent romanticization. Yet, my views on objectivity and intersubjectivity changed as I started writing the annotated bibliography and engaged more with oral history theory and methodology. 

By the beginning of October, we started working on an extensive annotated bibliography. I identified oral history transcripts which discuss Japanese American imprisonment during World War II. It turned out Japanese Americans’ incarceration experiences were too diverse to generalize. It was wonderful to see that narrators who discussed the incarceration ranged from formerly incarcerated deaf family members to the War Relocation Authority officials to a fisherman who delivered fish to incarceration centers. I recognized how diverse their voices are and realized that the stories that we tell are not objective at all. Thus, history cannot be objective. For example, some formerly incarcerated Japanese Americans expressed their bitter feelings that life in incarceration camps was shocking and traumatizing. Some of them, like Nancy Ikeda Baldwin, even said that these experiences decreased their performance in school after their incarceration. On the other hand, others said that the incarceration camps were enviable experiences. One generation later, Eiko Yasutake confessed, “I was kind of a little jealous when you went to the camps, because that, for kids, was that side of it, that they were all together and kind of had that playtime if you will.” In fact, so many photographs from this time highlight Japanese Americans’ agency. Jack Iwata’s work uncovers Japanese Americans hosting beauty pageants, emphasizing Japanese Americans’ power to make the most out of their circumstances. This wide array of recollections, even among Japanese Americans, confused me. However, it made me contemplate how I would utilize the idea of intersubjectivity to share this nuanced and complex history with people who don’t really know about these incarceration experiences.

Queen of Manzanar
Margie Midori Shimizu Hirashimal, “Queen of Manzanar.” The image of a beauty queen at Manzanar shows the resilience of the Japanese American community incarcerated there. Photograph by Jack Iwata, c. 1942-1945. Courtesy of Calisphere.

The question of how I would interpret these stories and share them with people who are unfamiliar with this topic led me to another question: how my identity as Japanese would impact interpretations of Japanese American incarceration. As a person who partially shares the same heritage and cultural background, I felt a sense of familiarity and interacted with interview transcripts with care. Encountering some of the Japanese words in oral history interview transcripts that don’t quite translate into English, such as ‘gaman‘ and ‘shikataganai,’ I felt a cultural connection to Japanese American prisoners. When someone discusses that formerly incarcerated Japanese Americans are hesitant to talk about their experiences, I recognize how Japanese culture made them react that way. My own subjectivity helped me grapple with these Japanese Americans’ incarceration stories. At the same time, I learned that I should also step back from my own subjectivity. Some of the Chinese and Filipino Americans’ transcripts on this topic allowed me to tackle this idea. Caroline and Frank Gwerder said, “[Filipinos] were fearful of what the Japanese might do.” These interviews reminded me of how Japanese imperialistic and super nationalistic policies and how they implanted fear on other Asian Americans and reshaped U.S. homeland politics. Since then, I felt more cautious about my national identity, in particular as a person coming from a country with this imperialistic past. That adage that “winners write history” nicely illustrates how imperialists write and rewrite history and leave behind the perspectives of marginalized communities. Recognizing this, I became to be more mindful about valuing the stories of incarcerated Japanese Americans.

Throughout this process, I realized that the inner dialogue between my identity, my interpretation of these oral history interviews, and how I would disseminate them to a larger audience is all subjective. Historians cannot avoid being subjective. In order to best reflect these interviews through my annotated bibliography, I would highlight their plight caused by the government’s racially discriminatory plan and Japan’s imperialistic military policy. Yet, more importantly, I would also emphasize incarcerated peoples’ agency and adoption of “gaman.” Utilizing my shared culture and history, as well as acknowledging the imperialistic past that my country made, I will utilize the oral history as bottom-up narratives to overturn the romanticized past.

Find out more about the oral histories mentioned here  from the search feature on our home page. You can search by name, key word, and several other criteria.

Primary Sources: HistoryMakers Digital Archive

The HistoryMakers The HistoryMakers Digital Archive is an ongoing oral history project begun in 1993 to record, preserve, and disseminate the stories of African Americans and African-American led groups and movements. The interviewees come from a variety of fields and from across the United States. The high-quality video interviews are broken up into sections with brief summaries of the content, and each section is accompanied by a transcript. The resource can be searched by aspects of historical context, biographical themes, or qualities of the interview.