An Interview with Samuel Hand: "Reel Life: The Early Years of the OHA/OHR"

Article excerpt

TRACY K'MEYER: I want to start with your educational background, then how did you get to be an historian. Could you tell me about when you were young, what you wanted to be when you grew up?

SAMUEL HAND: I really didn't have great ambitions. I went to college. I was living then in Woodstock, New York. I was really brought up in Bayside, Long Island, then my father bought a dairy in Woodstock, so in high school I was commuting. I wanted to go to school in New York and I went to New York University. I lived in Greenwich Village and I was going to be a poet, or what have you. Then in 1952 the Korean War was on and I got my draft notice. I knew I was going into the army, even before I graduated, though I was inducted after graduation. [I was sent to the Korean Conflict]. Then when I got out of the army, I had the GI Bill of Rights.

I went to graduate school in history. Actually, I had a mentor who at the time was a very elderly and eminent person by the name of James T. Shotwell. He was involved with Woodrow Wilson, the Kellogg-Briand Treaty and things of this nature, the International Labor Organization. He was a very powerful man and he simply would call up and ask me where I wanted to go. He wanted me to study under a particular individual who was then at the Maxwell School at Syracuse, but by the time I got there, he was Under Secretary of something, so I never got to study under him. I simply got a Ph.D. in history.

TK: What was your dissertation?

SH: My dissertation, which is what brought me to oral history, was on Samuel Rosenman. Samuel Rosenman was a speech writer and then confidant of Franklin Roosevelt and then of Truman. He was the first counsel to the President. That was my dissertation. It was ultimately published, by the way not a very good book.

TK: How did you get the job at University of Vermont?

SH: My first job after receiving a Ph.D. was at Slippery Rock State Teacher's College in Pennsylvania. I had an opportunity to go to Vermont because a colleague from graduate school knew that his department chairman wanted to take a six month sabbatical and he asked me if I wanted that. My wife did. I did, too, I suppose. She didn't like Slippery Rock. It was a lonely place to live and not an intellectually stimulating place to be. So even though the University of Vermont was supposed to be for six months, we went up there and I've been there ever since.

TK: You said that the dissertation topic helped lead you into oral history. How did that happen?

SH: Before I had finished my dissertation, I discovered Columbia University had done an oral history on Rosenman and on some other individuals associated with events and individuals which were important to me. So I went down to the Columbia Oral History office and read these interviews. I was surprised that you'd read them, incidentally. I thought you'd listen to tapes of oral history, but I was pleased because I thought it was much more efficient. I could read much more quickly, so that didn't bother me at all, although I remember discussing it with Elizabeth Mason.

And that was it. I thought that was the end of oral history, but what happened was that when they had the conference at Arden House, apparently they had invited people from the lists of people who had used the Columbia Oral History Collection, and so I got an invitation. The dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Vermont at the time was a fellow by the name of Al Rollins. Al Rollins did the biography of Louie Howe, but he had been a student of Oscar Handlin. Handlin had been called upon to do an analysis of the John F. Kennedy Oral History Program. Rollins actually did the Handlin review, and Rollins was anxious that I attend this conference. So when he heard that I had an invitation, he sort of insisted I go. I can't say I would have gone otherwise.

TK: You said you had used the interviews at Columbia. …