UC Berkeley News


Willa Baum

31 May 2006

Willa Klug Baum, an internationally respected oral historian and the longtime director of the Bancroft Library's Regional Oral History Office (ROHO), passed away May 18 following back surgery.


Born in Chicago in 1926, Baum had an unconventional childhood that included schooling in Germany and Switzerland before she settled in Ramona, a small town in Southern California. She attended Whittier College, studying history under Professor Paul Smith - who once made the galling (to her) comment that she was his second-best student ever, after Richard Nixon. She received her master's degree at Mills College in Oakland and then accepted a scholarship to pursue a Ph.D. in U.S. history at Berkeley, where she was one of only two women in the program at the time.

In graduate school, she married Paul Baum, a fellow doctoral student. After the births of the first two (of their six) children, Paul became ill, so Willa began working full-time to support the family, teaching English as a second language and transcribing interviews.

It was around this time that Berkeley's president, Robert Gordon Sproul, agreed to allocate money to capture the stories of individuals who had helped make history in the western United States - giving birth in 1954 to the campus's oral history project. Baum was appointed the next year as an interviewer and editor specializing in the fields of agriculture and water development. In 1958, she became the project's director, a position she held until her retirement in 2000.

Baum was instrumental in establishing oral history as an accepted discipline by helping to develop professional standards and methodologies. A founding member of the Oral History Association, her numerous books and anthologies include her seminal 1969 publication, Oral History for the Local Historical Society. Under her directorship, ROHO amassed more than 1,600 oral accounts by participants in significant historical events, primarily in California and the West.

Upon her retirement, Baum received the Berkeley Citation for her service to the campus, the President's Citation for her contributions to UC, and the Hubert Howe Bancroft Award for her leadership of ROHO.

Baum is survived by her sister, Gretchen Klug of Oakland; five children (Marc Baum of San Francisco, Eric Baum of Santa Monica, Rachel Baum Bogard of Nevada, Brandon Baum of Palo Alto, and Anya Davis of Los Angeles); seven grandchildren; and her beloved housekeeper and companion, Shirley Williams of Berkeley. She was preceded in death by her son Noah and her former husband, Paul.

A memorial is planned for 2 p.m., Sunday, June 4, at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave. (call 845-8725 for details). Donations in Baum's memory may be sent to the Willa K. Baum endowment for oral history, c/o the Regional Oral History Office at UC Berkeley.