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The best job in the world.

I had the privilege of working for nearly twenty years at the Regional Oral History Office (ROHO) when Willa Baum was the director. I first heard of her years before that when I used materials she had developed as a teacher of English as a Second Language for adults in Oakland, California, Chinatown. When I interviewed her for her own oral history in April 2005, I reminded her of those stories about the Wong family, and she said, "The people in the little stories, to me, became real. And I hoped [real] to my students, because each lesson, something happened that I thought might have happened to these students. It had to be relevant to their life." This same concern and empathy characterized her work as an oral historian and office director, as she cared sincerely about each interviewer and interviewee.

Willa was often called upon to be a peer group reader for grant proposals to the National Endowment for the Humanities for oral history projects, and she objected to budgets that paid the director much more than the interviewers. Quoting again from her oral history: "I just thought, why should oral history be one of these top-heavy things where one person's making a lot of money, and ... it's the interviewers that are really working, at least the way we do oral history. It should not be this, the rich and the poor, within our own little profession here."

She was serious about thorough development of an oral history project. "You have to have an interviewer who knows the subject well enough, from studying or working in it, to be able to interview the people, and you have to have somebody who can develop the series. You have to know who are the important persons in [the field], and what are the real issues we need to develop.... The interviewer in our office really developed the project ... It was a really professional task.... Our interviewers were permanent, I hoped. I didn't want to get people who would come in for two or three years and then go away and leave me standing there holding a series with no interviewer."

Willa insisted that oral histories should be used, and she was "dubious about a lot of [community oral history] projects, in that they don't have any plan for their use, and they're not effectively used for what they wanted to do, which was to bring the community together, and to know who their forebears in the neighborhood were."

Just as in this instance, oral histories are often used for memorials, and she said, "It brings about for those of us who've worked on it a satisfaction with our work that it has been so meaningful to the families and colleagues of the people we've interviewed. So that not only do the people enjoy being interviewed, but their story goes on."

ROHO oral histories when completed were usually "presented" at a social event, which served a dual purpose, honoring the interviewee and publicizing the work of ROHO: "We could honor these people in a way that they cared about, which was to have their friends and their colleagues come, and I think that was one of the valuable things that we did, was to bring recognition to these people while they were still alive, and to have an event that their friends could gather and talk to them. And of course, then their friends wanted to read the book [laughs]."

Willa Baum was a demanding editor, with an eagle eye for an error of spelling or punctuation. Looking back, she said, "I think one of the things ROHO has done better than any other organization, is our guides and helps for researchers, particularly the indexes, the table of contents, the interview histories that tell how the interview came about, and how it was done, and different pieces of information that are useful to the researcher, and our introductions to the person by a colleague or someone who knows them well, add material to the value of the oral history.... I'm glad I was affiliated with a first-class project and ... wouldn't have had the same sense of satisfaction ... if we turned out a shabby product."

Gray Brechin, California historian, said it best in a talk given at the University of California Faculty Club, in September 2004:
   Willa never threw anything away, perhaps because she had nothing
   to hide. Everyone agreed that she ran the office with total
   transparency, that--as one colleague said--she allowed nothing
   to fester. Even though she had a growing family, she stayed after
   hours to go through the day's correspondence to see that everything
   was answered and up-to-date, so she would know if there were any
   ticking time bombs in the organization that needed personal
   defusing.... I found an exceptional level of professionalism
   mixed with empathy, and a regard for her staff as if it was an
   extension of her own family. Willa Baum manage[d] a high-volume,
   high-quality output ... a horizontal and transparent
   organization ... for four and a half decades. She did so because
   she felt that she had not a career to be advanced, but simply the
   best job in the world.

Consequently, the staff she directed felt the same--it was the best job in the world.

Eleanor Swent was an interviewer for the Regional Oral History Office for many years.
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Author:Swent, Eleanor
Publication:The Oral History Review
Article Type:In memoriam
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2007
Previous Article:Tribute to Willa Baum.
Next Article:To touch future generations.

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