Time Travelers

Current students collect oral histories of students past.

Current students collect oral histories of students past.

Long before the advent of the written word, humans shared stories and ideas orally, from person to person, narrator to listener.

Not surprisingly, historians have come to see the value of this oral tradition in their pursuit of a more complete understanding of the past. By gathering individuals’ oral histories, we preserve and interpret historical events through the lens of actual participants.

For many years at Lewis & Clark, there has been talk of an oral history project. Alumni would be interviewed about their college experiences, and the resulting audio files would be archived for future generations. Members of the Albany Society, a group of alumni who graduated 50 or more years ago, have been strong supporters of the idea. Others, including the Board of Alumni, have also identified it as a priority.

Beginning in 2014, through an intergenerational collaboration between students present and students past, the project became a reality.

Origin Story

The launch of the oral history project owes its success, in part, to an opportune alignment of key stakeholders. The Board of Alumni had decided to move forward with gathering oral histories at the same time Jane Hunter, professor of history, had been considering them as a course component.

“Jane’s interest was key,” says Don Floren BS ’53, a longtime member of the Albany Society Board of Directors. “There were students in her classes who needed the experience of collecting oral histories.”

“We’re always looking for ways to make history appealing and lasting, and one way to do that is to include an oral history component in these courses. After all, history happens to real people—it’s not just reported in textbooks.Jane Hunter, Professor of History

In spring 2014, Hunter was slated to teach two history courses that would prove pivotal: History 300: Historical Materials, and History 262: Researching and Writing Public History.

“We’re always looking for ways to make history appealing and lasting,” says Hunter. “And one way to do that is to include an oral history component in these courses. After all, history happens to real people—it’s not just reported in textbooks.”

By making the alumni oral histories a course element, students would gain valuable experience, and alumni would be assured that their stories were captured and archived.

To execute the project, Hunter joined forces with other key stakeholders. In late 2013, an ad hoc team emerged: Jane Hunter from the history department; Doug Erickson from Watzek Library; Angela Torretta from Alumni and Parent Programs; Chuck Charnquist BS ’58 and Don Floren from the Albany Society; Annette Klinefelter BA ’97, MEd ’10 from the Board of Alumni; and Jean Ward, professor emerita of communication and a college history enthusiast.

“We were immediately interested in the oral histories as an archives resource,” says Erickson, associate director of Watzek Library. “Jane’s students would be capturing a piece of history that traditionally isn’t documented. Memories tend to fade as we fade. This project would give us important clues as to why the college is what it is and where we’re going.”

Jane Hunter, Professor of History, and students Jane Hunter, Professor of History, and students

Interview Process

Once the collaborators agreed on the overall approach, they set to work. The Albany Society Board of Directors compiled a list of local alumni to be interviewed. They agreed that the first graduates of Lewis & Clark’s Palatine Hill campus, which opened in 1942, would take priority. More than 25 alumni were identified, mostly graduates from the 1950s and early 1960s.

Students would need training in two areas: the process of conducting an oral history interview and the technical aspects of making an archival recording.

The Watzek Library staff identified a local historian, Michael O’Rourke, to conduct two Saturday workshops with students about the nuts and bolts of gathering oral histories. He provided important information on how to guide the interview and ask effective follow-up questions. Zach Selley, assistant archivist, helped train the students on using the library’s digital equipment.

Each student reached out to his or her assigned alum by phone to set up a one- to two-hour campus interview. The students also shared some sample topics with alumni in advance to help them organize their thoughts. Topics included the makeup of the student body, aspects of their social lives, their professors and coursework, college traditions, extracurricular activities, and the political atmosphere on campus.

To fulfill the assignment, each student needed to provide an abstract or timed summary of the contents of the interview, a transcription of the richest half hour, a photo of the interviewee, and the audio file. “Students learned interviewing, abstracting, and what’s involved in creating an archive,” says Hunter. “Frankly, some of it is hard grunt work.”

Nina Manno BA ’14, who was then a student worker in the history department, served as Hunter’s coordinator. Her tasks included setting up interview locations, managing the students’ various computer files, and helping to assemble a short video about the project.

The work still isn’t completely done, but Hunter says she is getting closer to transferring the materials to the archives in Watzek Library. Discussions are also under way about making portions of the interviews available online.

Participant Reactions

Students were enthusiastic, although sometimes nervous, about meeting their assigned alum. However, their worries were soon put to rest; all of the alumni had volunteered their time and were eager to share their reflections. 

Julia Withers CAS ’16 interviewed Rod Downey B.S ’50. The two hit it off so well that they have since had lunch together in the Trail Room. “Being a student on the hill, I always feel surrounded by people my same age and background, so connecting with someone who is really different in age was refreshing,” says Withers. “While I live it, it’s hard to realize about how big of a milestone college will be in my life. But Rod helped me to see that college is important for building connections with not just faculty and alumni, but also with peers.”

Trushaa Castelino CAS ’15 spoke with Donna Lawrence BA ’52. “Interviewing Donna felt extremely nostalgic,” says Castelino. “I could visualize everything she was saying, almost like I was there. On a personal level, the interview was a bit of a wake-up call; it made me realize that I needed to quickly put my skills to use in interviewing my own grandmother and preserving her experiences.”

Alumni participants were equally enthusiastic. “It was fun!” says Barbara Getty BA ’56, MAT ’78, a member of the Albany Society. “Lewis & Clark has changed considerably. It’s important for current classes to know what it was like.”

At the close of the process, Don Floren conducted an informal survey of Albany Society participants to gauge reactions. “The overall response was extremely positive,” he says. “The students had done a good job and made it pleasant for all.”

A Sense of Community

With the completion of the first alumni interviews, Floren notes there is a desire to “get caught up” with those from other eras as well. He hopes the college will develop a systematic approach to collecting alumni oral histories.

In the meantime, the project has been expanded to include the oral histories of faculty emeriti (see related article at right), another key constituent group.

Hunter is pleased with the first iteration of the project and feels it benefits both students and alumni. “For students, it allows them to make connections with people from another generation, many of whom were exploring the same kinds of questions but in a different time,” she says. “And for alumni, it helps them personalize the students of today and strengthen their connections to the college.”

Floren agrees that the project has created a strong community feeling. “People of my vintage tend to say the college has ‘totally changed,’ but it really hasn’t. At the core, there’s still a common bond. The college’s mission is the same, but the environment in which it’s being projected is totally different—the world has changed.”

Capturing how that world has changed, including its social and historical contours, is an important objective of the project. But for Floren and others, the heart of the project is more personal: “No one else can tell our stories.”

Shelly Meyer is the editor of the Chronicle magazine.