SENIOR POWER… Oral history

By Helen Rippier Wheeler
Thursday December 29, 2011 - 11:09:00 AM

Oral history is the collection and study of historical information about individuals, families, important events, or everyday life using audiotapes, videotapes, or transcriptions of interviews. These interviews are planned and conducted with people who participated in or observed past events and whose memories and perceptions of these are to be preserved as an aural record for future generations. Oral history also refers to information gathered in this manner and to written work — published or unpublished — based on such data, often preserved in archives and large libraries such as the Bancroft. 

The Bancroft is the primary special collections library of the University of California, Berkeley. The Regional Oral History Office (ROHO) of the Bancroft conducts, analyzes, teaches about, and preserves oral history interviews on topics related to the history of California and the United States. The interviews are deposited in manuscript libraries worldwide, many accessible online. The Bancroft also houses original interview tapes. 

Oral historians strive to obtain information from different perspectives, many of which cannot be found in written sources. They ask open-ended questions and avoid leading questions that encourage people to say what they think the interviewer wants them to say. Some interviews are “life reviews”, conducted with people at the end of their careers. Others focus on a specific period or event in the lives of people such as war veterans or earthquake survivors. 


Charles Albert Murdock (1841-1928) edited the Pacific Unitarian newspaper from 1892-1928. He married Alice J. Meeker in 1871; seven years after her death in 1884, he married Winifred White, who died in 1903. He died in Oakland, leaving a son, Osgood, and two daughters, Margaret Elliot and Edith King. Copy number 1065 of his book, A Backward Glance at Eighty: Recollections & Comment ; Massachusetts 1841, Humboldt Bay 1855, San Francisco 1864 (autographed by him and published by P. Elder in 1921) is in the library collection of Santa Clara University. In it, he wrote the following: 

“The earthquake and fire of April, 1906, …Being aroused from deep sleep to find the sold earth wrenched and shaken beneath you, structures displaced, chimneys shorn from their bases, water shut off, railway tracks distorted, and new shocks recurring, induces terror that no imagination can compass. After breakfasting on an egg cooked by the heat from an alcohol lamp, I went to rescue the little I could from my office, and saw the resistless approaching fire shortly consume it. Lack of provisions and scarcity of water drove me the next morning across the bay. Two days afterward, leaving my motherless children, I returned to bear a hand in relief and restoration. Every person going up Market Street stopped to throw a few bricks from the street to make possible a way for vehicles. …” 


Murdock was considered the “first fine printer of San Francisco.” In 1976, his eighty-two year old daughter, Margaret, was interviewed as part of the oral history of her father and San Francisco. The transcribed interviews may be heard on tapes in the Bancroft. Here are portions of that interview, excerpted by me :  

…I “think I’m fortunate in having, probably through him, fairly good health which keeps energy going. I don’t think I compare at all with all the activities he did so merrily until he was in his late eighties. I think he was quite ready to admit that his hobbies and outside interests interfered with his really being completely successful in his printing business because he spent so much time on other things. But that was part of his enjoyment of life and part of his kind of civic conscience, to participate in church activities and community activities. I don’t compare with it but probably anybody who spreads around a little thinly has pleasure in doing it even if it’s a fault. 

I think perhaps New Englanders in general have a variety of interests and talents that they can call upon when they need to. He was a Sunday School superintendent and many Sundays he'd come home after church and sit at his desk and the pen would be sliding along and there would be editorials for the Pacific Unitarian, or little articles or papers.  

I’m sure that it was helpful to him to be associated, as he was, with an intellectual group of men. The Chit-Chat Club members were mostly college professors and the Unitarian 

Club and the Shakespeare Club had lawyers and doctors and other professional people in them. I think he held his own. For somebody who had a very modest education he managed to compete fairly well with his essays. He used to write on somewhat erudite subjects or political ones that were, perhaps, beyond his depth as an economist. It was Henry Morse Stephens who told him to write about things or people he knew personally. On the strength of that he wrote about Bret Harte in Humboldt County and about San Francisco in the 60s. 

When at eighty he was asked to do a book of reminiscences he wrote his Backward Glance. It was rather like the present interest in oral history. It was excellent to be able to recall the Indians in the Hoopa Valley, and incidents other people didn’t t know too much about and that were a part of his background as a young man in Humboldt County… I think he loved both his Leominster early childhood, and his Humboldt County young manhood. He liked the outdoors but he wasn't one to brood over the past. I think he loved San Francisco, although I think probably the fact that when he was in Uniontown and learned how to be a tinsmith and learned how to help with the Indian crops and so forth, he was showing that Yankee ingenuity that enables them to tackle the different things that come along and work out ways of getting along. 

We went down [to the print shop] when we were children. We lived out near the Presidio and you’d take the Union Street cable car which, as it got over down from the hills, turned into a horse drawn vehicle to get to the ferry building after it had become a horse-drawn car. The whole printing plant was above a market so that you d have the smell of rotten vegetables and the cattle, the chickens and such. And the very rickety stairs as you went on up to the printing office. The printing office had a variety of presses: the little pony press and the large linotypes. It was fun to go and be taken in to see the bindery girls and be given little scraps of paper to take home to play with. Bindery girls, even if they get to be eighty, are still girls. 

…. it seems as though Clay Street was just full of an assortment of printing firms, some of which of course might have succeeded each other and used the same plants. … he continued right after the fire. They were, for a while, over in Oakland at the Pacific Manifolding Book Company, and then down on Geary Street in what had been a car barn on Geary and Webster. Then Mission and Front where Blair-Murdock had its offices. Father was connected with that until about 1916. So he certainly was in the business for a long time. 


Well, we had a German housekeeper for several years, but I probably took almost complete charge of my younger sister. I think children can be fairly independent if they have to be. Then we went to move in with a sister of my father when I was a teenager had a combined household with Aunt Lily and her daughter as well as father and his three 

children. By that time, I think the three children were fairly independent anyhow. 


He didn’t get into a dotage at all in his older years, which is nice. He was, I think just about a week before he died, over at the City going to something at the church. I think some of his friends thought that his children were a little neglectful to let him go off and run the risk of falling. But he was the independent type and he would not have appreciated being held back by younger people. He was living with my brother in Piedmont and still very active until the very last week of his life when he d had the stroke. So it’s easy to go that way when you haven’t had a diminishing in your interest in life.” 

A Senior Power column in March 2012 — that’s Women’s History Month — will be devoted, as am I, to Margaret Elliot Murdock (1894-1985).  



A study has found that most of the weight regained by older women is fat. Some weight regain is common after weight loss, but in older women, many of those regained pounds return as fat mass rather than muscle mass. Duh 

A new study reported in the December 2011 issue of Health Services Research compared the 10 largest U.S. for-profit nursing home chains with other ownership types. UC, SF researchers found that for-profit chains had lower nurse staffing hours and higher deficiencies.  


MARK YOUR CALENDAR. Be sure to confirm. Share by email news of future events that may interest boomers, seniors and elders. Daytime, free, and Bay Area events preferred.  

Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2012. 1-2:30 P.M. Book Club members will read French Lessons by Ellen Sussman. Mastick Senior Center, 1155 Santa Clara Ave., Alameda. Free. 510-747-7510. 

Tuesday, Jan 3. 12 Noon. League of Women Voters. Albany branch, Alameda County Library, 1247 Marin Av. Free. 510-526-3720. 

Wednesday, Jan. 4. 9 A.M. – 1:30 P.M. AARP Driver Safety Refresher Course specifically designed for motorists age 50+. Taught in one-day. To qualify, you must have taken the standard course within the last 4 years. Preregistration is a must. There is a $12 per person fee for AARP members (AARP membership number required) and $14 per person fee for non-AARP members. Registration is payable by check ONLY made payable to AARP. Mastick Senior Center, 1155 Santa Clara Ave., Alameda. 510-747-7510. 

Wednesday, Jan. 4. 12 noon. Playreaders at Central Berkeley Library, 2090 Kittredge. 510-981-6100. See also Jan. 11, 18, 25. 

Wednesday, Jan 4. 6 P.M. Lawyer in the Library. Albany branch, Alameda County Library, 1247 Marin Av. Free. 510-526-3720. Sign up in advance 

Thursday, Jan. 5. 10 A.M. Computers for Beginners. Central Berkeley Library, 2090 Kittredge. 510-981-6100. See also Jan. 12, 19, 26. 

Monday, Jan. 9. 6 P.M. Evening Computer Class. Central Berkeley Library, 2090 Kittredge. 510-981-6100. See also Jan. 16, 23 and 30. 

Monday, Jan 9. 6:30 P.M. “Castoffs” Knitting Group. All levels are welcome and some help will be provided. Kensington Library, 61 Arlington Av.. Free. 510-524-3043. 

Tuesday, Jan. 10. 1 P.M. Sugar Blues or What? Come be inspired, find ways to beat cravings, find specific tools to make healthier choices with Certified Health coach-Yoga teacher Neta O’Leary Sundberg. Mastick Senior Center, 1155 Santa Clara Ave., Alameda. 510-747-7510. 

Tuesday, Jan. 10. 7 P.M. Poetry Night. Albany branch, Alameda County Library, 1247 Marin Av. Free. 510-526-3720. 

Wednesday, Jan. 11. 12 noon. Playreaders. Central Berkeley Library, 2090 Kittredge. 510-981-6100. See also Jan. 18, 25.  

Thursday, Jan. 12. 6 P.M. Lawyers in the library. Berkeley Public Library south branch. 1901 Russell. 510- 981-6100. 

Thursday, Jan. 12. 7 P.M. Café Literario. Berkeley Public Library west branch. 1125 University. Facilitated Spanish language book discussion. January title: La tabla de Flandes by Arturo Perez-Reverte. 510-981-6270. 

Friday, Jan. 13. 9:30 – 11:30 A.M. Creating Your Personal Learning Network. Learn to use the Internet and tools like Twitter and YouTube Mastick Senior Center, 1155 Santa Clara Ave., Alameda. 510-747-7510. Also Feb. 17. 

Wednesday, Jan. 18. 7 P.M. Adult Evening Book Group. Ian McEwan’s Atonement. Albany branch, Alameda County Library, 1247 Marin Av. Free. 510-526-3720. 


Thursday, Jan. 19. 12 Noon. Learn what identity theft is, how to prevent it, and what you can do if you become a victim. This is one in a series of free financial education seminars taught by USE Credit Union. Central Berkeley Library, 2090 Kittredge. 510-981-6100.  

Thursday, Jan. 19. 6 P.M. Lawyers in the Library. Berkeley Public Library west branch. 1125 University 510-981-6270. See also Jan. 26. 

Sunday, Jan. 22. 1:30 P.M. Book Intro Film: Romeo and Juliet. Discussion group participants read the play at home and then gather at Berkeley’s Central Library, 2090 Kittredge Street to view the film adaptation. Following the film, participants will discuss the play, the film and the adaptation process. Sponsored by the Friends of the Library, this free program offers adult and teen patrons the opportunity to discuss books, films and the art of adaptation. Participation is limited and registration is required. 510-981-6236. 

Monday, Jan. 23. 10:30 – 11:30 A.M. Learn to Create a YouTube Video Jeff Cambra, Alameda Currents producer, will share the basics of shooting a good video and how to get it uploaded to YouTube. No equipment or experience needed. Mastick Senior Center, 1155 Santa Clara Ave., Alameda. 510-747-7510. 

Monday, Jan. 23. 12:30 P.M. YMCA/Albany Library Brown Bag Lunch. Speaker’s Forum: Fariba Nawa’s Opium Nation. Albany branch, Alameda County Library, 1247 Marin Av. Free. 510-526-3720. 

Monday, Jan. 23. 7 P.M. Kensington Library Book Club. The Surrendered by Chang-rae Lee. 61 Arlington Av. Free. Book group meetings are usually held on the fourth Monday of every month in the library at 7:00 p.m. Each meeting starts with a poem selected and read by a member with a brief discussion following the reading. New members are always welcome. 510-524-3043.  

Tuesday, Jan. 24. 1 P.M. Doggie Communication 101. Does your dog pull you down the street? Not get enough exercise because you have mobility challenges? Growl or snap? Bark too much? Other annoying or worrisome behaviors? Bring your questions and join dog trainer Ruth Smiler. Mastick Senior Center, 1155 Santa Clara Ave., Alameda. 510-747-7510. 

Wednesday, Jan. 25. 12:15-1 P.M. Michael Goldberg, guitar: Noon Concert Series.  

UCB Hertz Concert Hall. Sponsor: Department of Music Faculty recital.
Luis de Narvaez: Three Fantasias. Turina: Sevillana Bach: Suite in E Major (BWV 1006a). Ponce: Sonatina Meridional. Tickets not required. 510-642-4864 

Wednesday, Jan. 25. 1:30 P.M. Great Books Discussion Group. Albany branch, Alameda County Library, 1247 Marin Av. Free. 510-526-3720. 

Wednesday, Jan. 25. 1-2 P.M. Israeli Chamber Project Concert. Jewish Community Center. Berkeley Branch, 1414 Walnut St. Free. RSVP online. 510-848-0237  

Thursday, Jan. 26. 1:30 P.M. Music Appreciation Class. Join William Sturm, Volunteer Instructor. Piano recital and discussion about “The Classical Romantic: Johannes Brahms.” Mastick Senior Center, 1155 Santa Clara Ave., Alameda. 510-747-7510. 

Monday, Jan. 30. 7 P.M. Ellis Island Old World Folk Band Performance. 

Kensington Library, 61 Arlington Ave. Performance will include both Old World and New World repertoire emphasizing the transition that took place when Jews came to America at the beginning of the last century. Tunes from the Yiddish theater and radio featuring vocals made popular by the Barry Sisters, who were the queens of 1940s Yiddish Swing. As a pioneer in the revival of klezmer, lively and soulful Eastern European Jewish music, the Band has been honored with awards from Berkeley, Albany, and Alameda. Free. 510-524-3043 


Thursday, Feb. 2, 2012. 1:3-3 P.M. Fred Setterberg will discuss his book, Lunch Bucket Paradise, a true-life novel about growing up in blue-collar suburbia in 1950s and 60s East Bay. Albany Library, 1247 Martin Avenue. Free. 510-526-3720. This is a program in the Alameda County Library’s Older Adults Services series; for dates and branches throughout the county, call 510-745-1491. 

Friday, Feb. 24. 9 A.M.-4 P.M. Annual convention. United Seniors of Oakland and Alameda County. 510-729-0852.