"Getting Started, Beginning an Oral History Career." (an Interview with Charles T. Morrissey, Part 1)(interview)

Article excerpt

TRACY E. K'MEYER: Why don't we talk about how you first got interested in history, especially in oral history?

CHARLES T. MORRISSEY: Ironically and paradoxically I cannot recall as part of the childhood experience how any prospective interest in either history or oral history may have developed. I tell a joke when I teach: A few years ago I was with my two older brothers and my parents at a wedding reception for one of my nephews and my mother was introducing her three sons. She introduced her first born by saying, "This is my son Leonard. He's a CPA," and everybody presumably knows what a CPA does. She introduced her middle son by saying, "This is my son John. He works for IBM," and presumably everybody knows what IBM stands for. Then she introduced me by saying, "This is my youngest son Charles and he'll explain to you what he does." So now I have the position of trying to explain how this evolved.

Curiously, ruminating about it earlier today, I thought how as a youngster I was so attuned to voices on the radio, as silly as that sounds. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 7:30 p.m. I kept my date with the Lone Ranger and Tonto. The broadcast would begin with those words that still resonate in my memory: "Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when out of the past come the thundering hoofbeats of the great horse Silver. The Lone Ranger rides again!" Secondly, in a pre-television childhood I can recall two Boston disc jockeys named Bob and Ray, of whom I became a great devotee, which translates today into the fact that one of my Saturday habits is to get the news from Lake Wobegone.

Besides words as spoken, I was fascinated as a youngster with writing, and was greatly encouraged by dear Miss Ruth O'Donnell, my sixth grade teacher. I used to listen to radio broadcasts of the Red Sox games, since mine was a Greater Boston childhood. My great aspiration was to play first base for the Red Sox, but unfortunately the Red Sox never recognized that talent. In the course of an afternoon listening to a baseball game, I would often write a journalistic report as if I were a sportswriter in the press box at the ballpark. The next morning, when the Boston Herald came to our doorstop, I'd compare the printed account with my adolescent effort to explain what happened, which is exactly what historians do and journalists are supposed to do in composing the first draft of history.

Then I went off to Dartmouth College in 1952, indicating journalism as a prospective major, which Dartmouth did not offer. But a member of the English Department named Eric Kelly met with eight or ten other freshmen in the class of 1956 who indicated journalism as an interest. At Dartmouth in English II, the second semester of a year-long freshmen English requirement, we had to write a major research paper. I had discovered while going to school in Hanover, New Hampshire, a fascinating place just west of the Connecticut River called Vermont, and one of the curious facets of Vermont history was that Joseph Smith and many other Mormon pioneers were born there. I did my English II research paper on the Mormon exodus to the Salt Lake Valley.

Although my Dartmouth transcript tells you I majored in history, as the college yearbook does also--this is where oral history can be so valuable in trying to get a biographical perspective on someone's life--what really happened is that I majored in good teachers, and discovered more good teachers were in history than any other subject. I thought initially I would take sociology and found it so obtuse, so abstract, so depersonalized that it turned me off. Then in History 61, a man named Albert Demaree taught a course in biography nicknamed by undergraduates "Man-a-Day." This, I see now, since outcome determines recollection, shaped my interest in the biographical dimension to history, which of course oral historians confront by collecting first person narratives. …