Willa Baum Memorial, Remarks by Gray Brechin

Morrison Room, U.C. Berkeley, October 22, 2006

Every summer I join several hundred others to see a play in Berkeley’s John Hinkel Park, courtesy of Franklin Roosevelt and some dozens of nameless workers that he saved from destitution during the Depression by putting them to work building the trails and a lovely outdoor amphitheatre under the oak trees in the park Because of financial stringency, those employed by the Civil Works Administration — who were themselves a discarded resource— used whatever was at hand to build the amphitheatre — in this case, the smashed concrete from sidewalks and roads they were elsewhere improving, the same material with which they built retaining walls and the splendid Berkeley Rose Garden. Economy produced ingenuity and an artifact conducive to community that we have been using ever since — a bunch of friends and strangers gathering together for a few hours each summer with picnics and wine to hear old stories told anew. That’s what Willa — a child of the Depression herself — wanted to do, and what she spectacularly did because she was fired with the same vision of the common good that drove so much of the New Deal and indeed the Progressive movement in the 20th century. 

Those workers used smashed concrete, but when I think of Willa, I think of the Christmas card catalogues that someone gave her and which she used as daybooks instead of squandering short money buying new stationery. Once she had removed the cards, she pasted incoming and outgoing correspondence related to ROHO into those bulky books which now constitute an invaluable chronological record for anyone wishing to study the development of oral history as a profession in the United States for the nearly half century during which Willa was one of the pioneers in the field. Many of the notes are on sheets of paper cut in half if they were not fully used, since Willa was always saving resources in order to stretch whatever funds she had to capture more stories before they were lost. 

Those stories are vital for creating and preserving community, which I’ve come to realize was the purpose of so many of the New Deal projects that I am now studying. She was explicit about this, saying that a good oral history should “bring the community together [so that those in it would] know who their forebears in the neighborhood were.” In the same spirit, far-sighted WPA supervisors sent interviewers into the field to capture the stories of ex-slaves. Those taped interviews are among the most heavily used at the National Archives today.

But what interested me most when I interviewed Willa and those who knew her both personally and professionally is how she made ROHO itself a community by using to full advantage a resource that was then often ignored or discarded by the academic old boys network — educated women such as herself. Charles Morrisesey, past president of the Oral History Association, confirmed what I had, over the years, observed: ROHO was composed almost entirely of women. These were extraordinary women — well educated and socially-minded, many of them officers or presidents of the League of Women Voters with broad interests and degrees from the Seven Sisters or other colleges, often somewhat desperate housewives looking for challenging work with flexible hours so that they could raise families, women who were recommended or simply walked in the door, women for whom a living wage was not the first consideration.

It was just this resource which, at the same time, was working to save San Francisco Bay and the cable cars, stopping freeways and disastrous redevelopment, which was creating much of the environmental and preservation movement that we now take for granted, and that was vitally important in keeping warm the embers of the public good when others would have doused it.

Willa wanted continuity for her projects which she got in decades increments with the loyalty she earned: over those decades, with her encouragement, Willa’s “girls” became experts in those fields which interested them so that they could ask just the right questions, often of men disarmed by those for whom they might not have had the respect — or caution — that their interviewers merited. Few of those women had the all-important Ph.D. which so often incapacitates those of us who get them from being able to talk coherently to anyone outside of our fields or the academy. Willa stopped just shy of getting hers; under her tutelage, her staff saw its job as twofold: to communicate clearly and to serve others — traditionally feminine roles and crucial, I believe, to the formation of community.

Interviewer Susan O’Hara said to me “I never saw another university office where there was so little ego involvement. There was a genuine search for truth there.” When I asked Willa how she had created such an esprit de corps within an institution notorious for backbiting, she said simply “I guess it was because we were not hierarchical. We hired top-notch people, and there was never a sense that one person was better than another. We all just tried to do the best we could.” If someone came in who did feel that they were better, she added, they would soon find that they weren’t happy and would go away. (I might add that seldom have I heard a more pregnant conclusion, and I wish that I had asked a follow-up to that remark.)

How, then, did ROHO under Willa Baum manage such a high-volume, high-quality output under such conditions of budgetary stringency, or perhaps because of it? That is a question that I feel should be left to a sociologist, anthropologist, or management expert, though I doubt that the results could ever be replicated except by an exceptional individual. It takes someone fired with both a vision of the common good and a will to match it, which is why I have come to see Willa in the mold of Franklin Roosevelt and those such as Harry Hopkins, Harold Ickes, and Frances Perkins with whom FDR surrounded himself.

There’s something novelistic about Willa’s name itself, for in her case, the key was this: her driving will combined with vision created a horizontal and transparent organization embedded within one which is traditionally vertical and opaque, and she miraculously kept it going for the nearly half the century that the Bancroft Library has been at U.C. — and those of us who depend on those superbly done interviews are forever beholden to her and her staff. She did so because she felt that she had not a career to be advanced, but simply (as she told me) the best job in the world. Eleanor Roosevelt said that Franklin felt the same way about his job. Both, in their own ways, left us the tools with which to create community, as well as the models of their own remarkable lives in doing so.

The rest is up to us.


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