Asking Personal Questions

Article excerpt

You might say I was grandmothered into the Regional Oral History Office at UC Berkeley as an interviewer-editor in 1970. In those days, there were few courses in oral history methods. The idea of a graduate oral history program was just a glimmer on the horizon. It seemed as if university archival programs looked for a reasonable match of skills and trusted on-the-job training eventually to produce a competent oral historian.

When I began work, ROHO had recently begun a project on Earl Warren's California career, with the goal of documenting how he had evolved from a solemn law-and-order district attorney into the charismatic chief justice who would find a consensus for integrating the nation's schools and protecting individual civil liberties. The office was looking for interviewers who understood the state's politics and had some knowledge of the issues that had made Warren's reputation as a crusader and innovator in public administration.

I shudder to remember some of my bloopers during the first few recording sessions. But I was saved by some serendipitous earlier experiences. Most fortunate, I think, was the tough political science professor at Connecticut College who suggested firmly that all social science majors sit for the U.S. Civil Service Junior Professional Assistant exam in the spring of our senior year. What on earth for, we wondered. You never know, said Miss Dilley. The exam turned out to be very similar to the PSAT of high school days and a boring way to spend a Saturday morning.

Eventually, I received an official paper that said I qualified as a GS-5, whatever that meant. Subsequently, letters arrived at government expense offering employment in the General Services Administration in Kansas City, Missouri, the Federal Communications Commission in Denver, Colorado, and other places unfamiliar to an Easterner.

I forgot about them all when I had an opportunity to go to England, almost as glamorous as France without having to speak another language. After four months of soaking up the atmosphere of castles and cathedrals, I decided to look for a job so I could stay overseas. Well, the British economy was not hiring foreigners in the fifties, thank you very much. Pondering what to do next, I remembered my GS-5 and took myself to Leicester Square in London, where I made the rounds of the U.S. government offices located there, in sight of the statue of FDR in sweeping naval officer's boat cloak. Most of the agencies were looking for file clerks and said I was overqualified. Finally, a guy at the Veterans Administration sent me to the air force.

Lo and behold, the air force was looking for historians. Historians? But I majored in economics. No problem, that's a social science, and we're years behind writing the history of World War II. …