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Remembering Willa Baum (1926-2006): oral history pioneer and former ROHO director.

Willa Baum, former director of the Regional Oral History Office, passed away on May 18, 2006, while in recovery from back surgery. Willa was present at the founding of ROHO in 1954, and she served as its director for forty-three years until her retirement in 2000. During her career, she built and sustained one of the leading oral history programs in the country and became an internationally recognized figure in the field of oral history.

Born in Chicago on October 4, 1926, Willa's unconventional childhood and youth included schooling in Germany, Switzerland, and New York in the 1930s and 1940s before settling in Ramona, California, for high school. She was a star student at Whittier College. Her youthful interests and job experiences were diverse--skiing, folk dancing, playing piano and trombone, reading history, working as a social reporter on a local newspaper, and fruit picking. In 1947, before enrolling in the master's program at Mills College, Willa hitchhiked across the country. The following year, she enrolled at Berkeley as a graduate student in U.S. history (one of only two women in the program at the time). In the next eight years, she married, started a family, studied and taught American history, and became involved in the fledgling Regional Cultural History Project, which soon became the Regional Oral History Office. Starting as transcriber and research assistant, she was officially appointed in March of 1955 as interviewer/editor specializing in the fields of agriculture and water development, at the grand salary of $1.70/hour.

When Willa assumed the directorship of the office in 1958--supervising a staff of two to four part-time workers and overseeing a shoestring budget--oral history was just getting underway as a recognized research methodology. She immediately grasped the significance of the tape-recorded interview in creating new primary resources for scholars (much as Hubert Howe Bancroft did with his Dictations in the 19th century). Over the years, she built a nationally acclaimed oral history office documenting subject areas such as the arts and agriculture, biotechnology and banking, higher education and engineering, music and mining, politics and printing, health care and health sciences, and community history. When she retired, she left a loyal staff of 35 employees, still many part-timers, with an annual budget of $500,000. The growth of the oral history office came by dint of Willa's leadership and entrepreneurial spirit, and the gifted and tenacious fundraising she and her staff pursued; every project and a good part of the office's administrative costs were supported by gifts and grants.

The Regional Oral History Office was the second university program in oral history in the country, and Willa was a pioneer in the development of the field nationwide. She was a founding member and leader in the Oral History Association, and her publications on oral history methods, processing, uses, and theoretical approaches have guided several generations of oral historians. She has mentored countless community historians as well as Berkeley faculty and students in the art and practice of oral history. Her concise and eminently practical book on designing and carrying out an oral history project, Oral History for the Local Historical Society, first published in 1969 and now in its third edition, is still recommended reading for beginners to the field. She later co-edited Oral History: An Interdisciplinary Anthology, which addressed leading issues in oral history. The procedures and practices she established at ROHO on matters from legal releases to nuances of transcribing and editing interviews to ethical treatment of interviewees have provided models for programs across the country. She was truly a founder of the field of oral history. In recognition of her many contributions, Willa received upon retirement the Berkeley citation, the University's highest honor, and The Bancroft Library's Hubert Howe Bancroft Award.

Willa's training as an historian and her vision of the importance of primary resources in historical research always informed her work with ROHO. From the early days, she fostered ROHO's projects in a diversity of topics of central importance to the history of California and the West, often before they became established subject areas in academia: ROHO's series on forestry, water resources, and environmental groups began in the late 1950s, well before the field of environmental history was developed; ROHO's Suffragists and Women in Politics series began in the early 1970s, before most campuses had women's studies programs; more recently, ROHO recognized the importance of disability history and began documenting the disability rights movement with oral histories which are now available to provide primary research materials for new disability studies programs at Berkeley and nationwide.

Willa's historical vision helped ensure the enduring value of the oral histories created: in designing the 10-year project (1969-1979) of 140 interviews to document the Earl Warren gubernatorial era in California, for example, she saw that the perspectives of Warren's chauffeur, classmates, and hunting companions were included alongside his cabinet members, that Warren's career in criminal justice prior to the governorship was recorded, and that the oral history of civil rights leader C.L. Dellums was accomplished under a broad definition of the Warren era. She and her staff worked tirelessly to continue documenting California state government, designing and funding projects on the Pat Brown, Goodwin Knight, and Ronald Reagan governorships. The resulting oral histories have been source material for myriad scholarly studies since 1979.

Willa was always indefatigable in pursuing the documentation of University of California history. The colleges of Chemistry, Engineering, Environmental Design, Letters and Science, and Natural Resources; the departments of History, Economics, Geology, Anthropology, among others; and the Offices of the Chancellor and of the President as well all received calls from Willa Baum, prevailing upon them to sponsor oral histories with distinguished faculty and administrators. She worked with the Class of 1931 to establish an endowment fund for oral histories with distinguished alumni. Entitled "The University of California: Source of Community Leaders," it has created rich oral histories with distinguished alumni such as banker Rudolph Peterson and Kaiser executive Gene Trefethen, while also providing further opportunities for binding the University with its alumni. Chancellors came and went during her long tenure on campus, but Willa Baum was a well-known fixture representing the University at the Class of 1931 reunion and other gatherings of Old Blues.

Never one to adopt new ways precipitously, Willa didn't enter the computer age herself, eschewing e-mail and word processing right up to (and beyond) the turn of the new century. Nevertheless, once cajoled into the digital age by her staff, she recognized Internet publication as a means to her longstanding mission to make ROHO oral histories widely available for scholarly research. Under her leadership, ROHO was the first major oral history program to begin placing its collection on the Internet.

Willa Baum was a woman of broad interests and many accomplishments, not least among them raising six children, Marc, Eric, Rachel, Brandon, Noah, and Anya, born from 1952 to 1972. (For the Who's Who of American Women, she listed her avocation as "childrearing.") She loved theater and music and attended Cal Performances productions of all varieties, often in the company of her sister Gretchen or one of her ROHO colleagues. A former teacher of English as a foreign language, for many years she shared her home and made lasting friendships with scores of international students studying English in Berkeley. Her Monday evening dinners, with family, students, and an array of friends and former interviewees, were legendary.

To take the measure of a long and complex career is sometimes difficult, but in Willa Baum's case the evidence is tangible. Her most lasting and visible achievement was the collection she built at ROHO--more than 1,600 oral history interviews, in 800 repositories worldwide, many of them now on the Internet, filled with firsthand accounts by significant participants in historical events. Much of this record of the recent past would have been lost to future generations of historians had not Willa Baum recognized in 1954 the value of the fledgling discipline of oral history and for the next forty-five years applied her unflagging energy and commitment to recording and preserving the history of California and the West.

The staff of the Regional Oral History Office, and its loyal emeriti interviewers and editors, join Willa's family in mourning her loss.

Ann Lage is an interviewer at the Regional Oral History Office. She directs oral history projects and conducts research interviews in the fields of disability history, university history, and environmental protection and natural resource management in California and the West. Since 1996, she has directed the Disability Rights and Independent Living Movement project, which has completed more than one hundred in-depth oral histories with Bay Area and national disability leaders and participants.
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Author:Lage, Ann
Publication:The Oral History Review
Article Type:In memoriam
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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