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Tribute to Willa Baum.

One hundred of the oral histories of Willa Baum's legacy are the personal narratives of the little-known but important Disability Rights and Independent Living Movement (DRILM) that began in the 1960s. I'm especially grateful to Willa for this particular group of interviews, partly because of my experience in the disability community, but also because I have been privileged to work on that collection for many years.

The development of the DRILM collection is a good example of Willa as leader and historian. In 1982, as the coordinator of a unit of the Disabled Students Program at the University of California at Berkeley, I had rather boldly written her a 2-page explanation of why I thought this movement would be a great candidate for documentation by the Regional Oral History Office. At that time, I knew Willa only by reputation, not personally, and after I had sent the letter, I wondered if I had overstepped a boundary. I felt certain that the disability rights movement was comparable in many ways to other civil rights movements, but there was virtually nothing in the literature at that time. And I began to prepare for whatever answer I received or perhaps none at all.

The very next day the intercampus mail brought a note from her saying simply, "Good idea. We'll need to find funding. Let's talk." I can't describe the feeling of affirmation that that note conveyed to a neophyte in the world of oral history. Over the course of the next 20 years, I was to learn that Willa's encouragement to pursue an idea was prime motivation for the production of outstanding oral histories in many aspects of California history, from the environment to immigration to women in politics. Willa listened carefully and with a lively interest, sorted out and captured the fundamental ideas, identified their place in history, sometimes long before the general public.

To me Willa exemplified the ideal of higher education. And I believe all of her staff felt the same way. The ROHO office during her tenure was remarkable for its ego-free atmosphere; her staff was mutually dedicated to excellence and to producing final products worthy of a prominent university. I'm certain that that spirit stemmed from Willa's interest in each project, her willingness to allow her staff to do their work without micromanagement, and at the same time conveying high expectations. Many is the time one of us would receive a short note on a potential funding source or an article that she thought might be of interest.

Thanks to her initial endorsement and a long--and finally successful--search for funding, the Disability Rights and Independent Living collection of oral histories now, 24 years later, totals more than 10,000 transcribed pages, bound in volumes, and online. The project also includes 300 linear feet of documents and photographs from individuals and organizations involved in the movement. DRILM is now an outstanding research platform for scholars and historians.

Willa truly influenced the course of many histories. Fortunately, her legacy will endure, even as we miss this remarkable woman.

Susan O'Hara, former director, Disabled Students Program, University of California at Berkeley; consultant and interviewer, DRILM Project.

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Author:O'Hara, Susan
Publication:The Oral History Review
Article Type:In memoriam
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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