Nancy's Travelblogue

... there isn't a train I wouldn't take, no matter where it's going. -- Edna St. Vincent Millay

Location: California, United States

Sunday, June 04, 2006

WILLA BAUM, 1926-2006

Willa Baum -- internationally respected historian, founder and director of a major oral history program, mentor to a generation of oral historians --was was also a mother, grandmother, hostess with the mostess, friend to many, cancer survivor, and magnet to the greater Berkeley cultural community.

I have just returned from Willa's memorial service, where colleagues and family members came together to share rich and varied memories of Willa. I have the privilege of knowing Willa both as an oral historian and as a family member by marriage, so my experience has been both professional and personal. Here are my personal memories, along with messages other oral historians around the world have sent to me.

FIRST TIME I EVER HEARD OF WILLA: I heard about Willa before I ever heard of oral history, back in the early 80s. I was in graduate school at UC Berkeley and my younger sister Betsy was an undergraduate. I had a great apartment in a building near campus, and when Betsy needed a place to live I told her about a vacancy in the building. It just turns out that Willa's son Brandon was the apartment manager. Well, Betsy, applied for the apartment, Brandon accepted the application, Betsy moved in. You can fill in the blanks, and that's how Willa and I got our neices, nephews and grandchildren.
Shortly after I became aware of this guy named Baum visiting my sister all the time, the East Bay Express ran a feature article on Willa Baum and ROHO. I paid attention not because of her great oral history work, but because her son was hanging out with my little sister. After I read the very impressive article, I figured any son of such an accomplished woman would have to be ok. And it sure turned out to be true!

WILLA FOLKDANCING. I had a Balkan band at my 50th birthday party for folk dancing. When they struck up a Miserlou, who should join the line (and dance it very well!), but Willa!

WILLA IN ALASKA. The first Oral History Association meeting was in Anchorage, Alaska in 2000(?). Excited to be going to Alaska, I arrived a day early to do some exploring. After I got settled in my room I went out for a walk in the crisp autumn afternoon. The streets were deserted, but then a figure appeared out of nowhere – a tall, striking woman wearing a brightly colored full length skirt and lots of jewelry. Yes, it was Willa Baum! Willa had also arrived early and was out for a walk and for a bite to eat. She invited me to join her – the first of many meals I would share with Willa – and we had our first conversation about oral history.

BABYSITTING WITH WILLA: Willa's grandchildren are my niece and nephews. On one occasion we spent an afternoon together taking care of them and getting better acquainted with each other. I remember the day involved a lot of driving around, so we had a lot of time to visit. Car trips are good for that. We talked about our marriages and divorces, about combining childrearing and working, about trying to make ends meet and still be an oral historian. Willa told me how different oral history was when it got started, and how long she -- just like me -- did other things along the way to make ends meet.

Before I fall asleep, I want to share some tributes sent from other oral historians. For longer biographical articles, check the ROHO website.

From LOREN BREHAUT from Picton, New Zealand:

In 1993, in the depths of outback Australia, and with no oral historian within hundreds of miles I found Willa's book Oral History for the Local Historical Society in a library and for the next few years used it like a bible to guide me through learning the ropes of this fascinating occupation. I have been doing it ever since and am sincerely grateful for the very welcome and practical help she provided by taking the trouble to write it all down so clearly and sensibly.

A few months after I assumed the directorship of the Cal State Fullerton Oral History Program, I was asked to come to the Sierra Club meeting in San Francisco to represent our oral history program. I recall being so ignorant of Sierra Club history and environmentalism at the time as to be perhaps the ony person at the entire event who did not rcognize the legendary Jacques Cousteau. When I asked Willa who the nice elderly man was who smiled at me and genially acknowledged me when our paths crossed in the lobby, Willa gave me a startled loook and then explained to me who Cousteau was. She even asked if I had a place to spend the night, and then invited me to be her guest in her home.
What I learned during this short interval of time with Willa is that to be a truly successful oral historian, it is not enough just to conduct many quality interviews, and write articles and books, but rather, one had to be as thoughtful, gracious, and compassionate as Willa, this magesterial pioneering oral historian and oral history administrator was to a greenhorn like me.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Though I don't know you, I am Willa's Nephew from LA. My father was Willa's Husband Paul's brother.

I loved Willa and find it wonderful that you found the time to write your words..

She was a great woman. She will be missed.

Best to you,

Rich Baum

10/19/2006 3:23 PM  

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