Willa Klug Baum, an internationally respected oral historian, passed away on May 18, 2006, following back surgery. 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.
Born in Chicago on Oct. 4, 1926, Willa’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 Willa was his second-best student ever, after Richard Nixon.
Willa 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 Willa received a scholarship offer from Mills College in Oakland to study history. After obtaining a master’s degree from Mills, Willa accepted a scholarship from UC Berkeley to pursue a Ph.D. in U.S. history, one of only two women in the program at the time.
In her second year of graduate school, Willa married Paul Baum, a fellow Berkeley Ph.D. 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 to adults and transcribing interviews.
Around this time, Professor James D. Hart, who later became the director of the Bancroft Library, began using Hubert Howe Bancroft’s dictations of interviews that had been conducted in the 1860s and 1870s. Dr. Hart asked UC Berkeley’s president, Robert Gordon Sproul, why the university was not capturing the stories of those living today who had been a part of history.
President Sproul agreed to allocate money to do so and the oral history project at UC Berkeley was born, becoming the second major university program in oral history at the time, the first being Allan Nevins’ project at Columbia.
Corrine Lathrop Gilb, a fellow graduate student of Willa’s, was hired to set up the program in 1954 and she in turn hired Willa. The goal was to set up something like what Hubert Howe Bancroft had done long ago, when he sent out interviewers to record in longhand the accounts of pioneers, silver kings, and others who shaped the West.
Starting as a transcriber and research assistant, Willa was officially appointed in 1955 as an interviewer and editor specializing in the fields of agriculture and water development. When Gilb left in 1958, Willa became the director of the project, a position she held until her retirement in 2000.
By 1966, Willa and Paul had five children and Willa was employed full-time at the Regional Oral History Office (ROHO) as it was now called. Willa loved being involved in oral history, not only because the work was important, but because it allowed her to meet people of the highest caliber and interview them about the events and issues they felt most passionately about.
Through her interviews at ROHO, Willa got to know Earl Warren, Golda Meir, and 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 1970s, Willa and Paul were well known in Berkeley circles for having both a large (ultimately six children) and an intact family. In the Who’s Who of American Women, Willa’s avocation is listed as “childrearing.”
In addition to working full-time and raising six children, Willa also taught English to adult foreign-born students, and she could often be found leading a classroom of Chinese and Japanese immigrants in a silly English song.
After she and Paul divorced in 1980, Willa began a tradition of weekly dinners at her North Berkeley Julia Morgan-designed home, at which one could always find an eclectic variety of academic and cultural luminaries engaged in stimulating conversation and dining.
She also rented out spare bedrooms to foreign students who had come to Berkeley to study English, rendering her large home an ethnic and social melting pot in the classic Berkeley tradition. Fundraisers and solicitors, particularly those pursuing environmental causes, knew Willa as a “soft touch,” always willing to make a donation.
Willa 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, and although Willa published numerous books and anthologies on the topic of oral history, her 1969 publication titled 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, Willa often remarked that she only wrote the book because she was tired of being asked to give the same speech again and again.
Under Willa’s directorship, ROHO amassed over 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, and stand as an invaluable resource to researchers worldwide.
ROHO established a reputation of being ahead-of-the-curve in identifying and documenting historical movements; for example, ROHO’s Suffragists and Women in Politics series began in the early 1970’s before most campuses had women’s studies programs. Similarly, ROHO’s early documentation of the disability rights movement now provides primary research materials for the new disability studies program at UC Berkeley.
Ongoing ROHO projects include oral histories of the wine industry, mining, the environmental movement, the Disability Rights Movement, the Free Speech movement, anthropology, UC history, engineering, science, biotechnology, music, architecture, and the arts. ROHO’s largest projects document California government from the Earl Warren Era to the present.
Upon her retirement, Willa was bestowed the Berkeley Citation for her service to UC Berkeley, the President’s Citation for her contributions to the University of California, and the Hubert Howe Bancroft Award for her leadership of ROHO.
Willa 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 June 4, 2006 at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave. at 2:00 p.m. (call 845-8725 for more information). Donations can be sent to the Willa K. Baum endowment for oral history, care of the Regional Oral History Office.