I was fortunate to have some very personal experiences with Willa. In 1980 or '81, when we were just establishing the Oral History Program at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, Ron Inouye and I visited a number of programs to see first-hand how oral history programs were set up and run. We visited Dale Trelevan at UCLA, Michaelyn Chou at the University of Hawaii, and Willa at the Regional Oral History Office at UC Berkeley. David Dunaway's description of the office (OHA Newsletter 2006: 5, Vol. XL, No. 2) rings true; I remember it sequestered on an upper level, buried to most except those on a distinct mission to find Willa or her dedicated staff of interviewers and transcribers. My most vivid memory of that time is the emphasis her program had on transcripts of interviews and on developing programs with the "movers and shakers." As she explained to me and emphasized many times over, to keep the program alive you have to find funding and the trick is somehow to find influential backers who have something important to say, or who are willing to fund you to interview others who have something important to say. This is not to say that she didn't appreciate the oral accounts of working class people; her 1982 address to the Alaskan Oral History community demonstrates her appreciation of interviews with all members of society. It also spoke to her knowledge of the breadth of work that had been done based on interviews up to that point in time (1982). I came to appreciate that her vision came, at least in part, from her knowledge of how oral history had been used to write history, as well as her ability to see and pursue new opportunities.
If the ROHO office was sequestered away, Willa's house was in a center of activity. I had the pleasure of staying there on two occasions, once on the way back from a history conference in Sacramento where Willa was a discussant for a panel and the second was when I was going over to Fresno to conduct an interview and spent the night at Willa's. One aspect of the house stands out in my memory: the dining area where there were guests at dinner and lively discussion (could have been one of those Monday night dinners that Ann Lage described in the newsletter referenced above).
When my wife suggested that we name our daughter Willa, I was personally pleased. She wasn't named because of Willa Baum but bearing the same name, I am often reminded of my old friend. And when I think of her, the memories I just shared come back and I recall the detailed transcripts that she and her staff produced for future generations to write a more complete history. In that 1982 address to the Alaskan Oral History community, she defined oral history and it is worth quoting here because it shows her direction and yardstick for accomplishment (the emphasis is hers): "Oral History is the tape recording of a knowledgeable person, by questions and answers, about what he/she did or observed of an event or events or way of life of historical interest. The purpose is to preserve that account for users, both present but especially future users, and make it available for use" (1983:39). That's not my definition of oral history, but I sure can appreciate the contributions she made following that course. I miss her personally and professionally, but she has left us with a legacy of contributions based on her strong commitment to provide future generations with first person sources to write more complete and nuanced history.
Dr. William Schneider is Curator of Oral History at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.
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|Title Annotation:||TRIBUTES TO WILLA BAUM|
|Publication:||The Oral History Review|
|Article Type:||In memoriam|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2007|
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