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UC Berkeley Web Feature

Oral history pioneer Willa Baum dies at 79

– Willa Klug Baum, an internationally respected oral historian and the longtime director of UC Berkeley's Regional Oral History Office (ROHO), passed away May 18, following back surgery. She was 79. Her pioneering work in oral history methodology and interview techniques served as the foundation for the establishment and growth of oral history as a unique academic discipline.

Willa Baum
Willa Baum

Born in Chicago on Oct. 4, 1926, Baum's unconventional childhood included schooling in Germany and Switzerland before settling in Ramona, a small town in southern California. Her youthful interests included tap dance performances with her sister Gretchen and contributing to the local newspaper as a social reporter. 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. Baum paid for college by working as a telephone operator during the summer, and by winning an annual academic scholarship as the department's top student.

Upon graduation, Baum received a scholarship offer from Mills College in Oakland to study history. After obtaining a master's degree from Mills, she accepted a scholarship from Berkeley to pursue a Ph.D. in U.S. history, making her one of only two women in the program at the time.

In graduate school, she married Paul Baum, a fellow doctoral student, and they settled in Berkeley. After the births of the first two of their 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 - giving birth in 1954 to the oral history project at Berkeley (the second major university program in oral history). The goal was to send out interviewers to record the accounts of those who had shaped the West. Baum was appointed in 1955 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 loved being involved in oral history, getting to meet people of the highest caliber and interview them about the events and issues they felt most passionately about. Through her interviews, she got to know Earl Warren, Golda Meir, Edmund G. "Pat" Brown, David Brower, and many others. She prided herself on being clever enough to hire a group of top-notch women interviewers, each an expert in her field, who "wanted something intelligent to do."

During the 1960s and much of the '70s, the Baums had six children and were well known in Berkeley circles. In Who's Who of American Women, her avocation is listed as "childrearing." In addition to working full-time and raising her children, she taught English to foreign-born adults. Following Willa and Paul's divorced in 1980, she began a tradition of weekly dinners at her north Berkeley Julia Morgan-designed home, at which one could always find an eclectic collection of academic and cultural luminaries engaged in stimulating conversation. She also rented out spare bedrooms to foreign students who had come to Berkeley to study English.

Baum was also instrumental in establishing oral history as an accepted discipline by working with colleagues from around the country to develop professional standards and methodologies. She was a founding member of the Oral History Association. She published numerous books and anthologies on the topic of oral history; her 1969 publication, Oral History for the Local Historical Society, is still considered a fundamental primer on establishing an oral history program. In her typical self-deprecating style, she often remarked that she only wrote the book because she was tired of being asked to give the same speech again and again.

Under Baum's directorship, ROHO amassed more than 1,600 oral histories, filled with first-hand accounts of the participants in significant historical events primarily in California and the West. These permanent eyewitness-accounts of history are on deposit at over 800 libraries worldwide. ROHO established a reputation of being ahead of the curve in identifying and documenting historical movements. Its Suffragists and Women in Politics series began in the early 1970s, before most campuses had women's studies programs; its early documentation of the disability-rights movement now provides primary research materials for disability studies.

Upon her retirement, Baum was bestowed the Berkeley Citation for her service to the campus, the President's Citation for her contributions to the 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 the University of California, Berkeley.