Oral History Center
An Oral History with Malca Chall, Interviewer/Editor for the Regional Oral History Office, 1967-2000
We are delighted to introduce the oral history of our former colleague, Malca Chall: Wage Rate Analyst for the War Labor Board, World War II; East Bay Community Activist; Interviewer/Editor for the Regional Oral History Office, 1967-2000.
Malca is well known in the Oral History Center as a key staff member for thirty-three years. She came to the Regional Oral History Office, as we were then named, in 1967 and soon became an indispensable and respected interviewer, project director, and right-hand woman to director Willa Baum. Over the years she planned and carried out an impressive array of oral histories, most prominently in the fields of California water policy and politics and government. Her final volume of interviews was completed in 2000.
Few of Malca’s colleagues were aware of an earlier chapter in her life: her employment with the National War Labor Board in Seattle during World War II. Once we learned of her work as a wage rate analyst in the Seattle area for the War Labor Board, we realized that her story would add a unique perspective to our Rosie the Riveter / World War II American Home Front Project. Recognizing an opportunity to also document some important history of the Regional Oral History Office, where I was her colleague for many years, I offered to record Malca’s wartime experiences as the first topic in a longer oral history encompassing her career with ROHO. Only after meeting with Malca to plan her oral history did I realize the importance of also discussing her extensive civic activism in the Hayward/Castro Valley area. In many ways, her volunteer activities with the League of Women Voters and other citizen groups, as well as her wartime experiences, informed her pursuits as an interviewer and project director at ROHO.
Malca Kleiner Chall was born in 1920 in Tacoma, Washington, to a family active in business, in civic affairs, and in the Jewish community. Malca graduated from Reed College and received a master’s degree in political science at the University of Iowa.
In 1943, she accepted an offer from George Bernard Noble, her major professor at Reed who had been appointed head of the War Labor Board, Twelfth Region, to join his staff in Seattle. At age twenty-three, with minimal formal training, she stepped into the ticklish job of analyzing requests for wage increases from both labor and industry, as the WLB sought to dampen inflationary pressures in the midst of critical labor shortages. She visited potato fields, apple orchards, and fisheries, as well as banks, aluminum factories, shipping companies, and other work sites, conducting research and making determinations on acceptable wage rates.
In the oral history Malca reflects on the impact of her wartime employment and also discusses social and political life in wartime Seattle for a young professional woman. An amusing highlight of this section is her account of a bike trip with a friend and colleague, during which the two young women spent a night in a jail cell, arranged by the police of Everett, Washington, when the friends found themselves without a safe place to sleep.
Following the war, Malca moved to New York in search of a job in labor relations. She found work instead with the Edward Bernays public relations firm and in time met and married her husband, Harold Chall. After they moved west to California, settling south of Oakland in San Leandro and then Hayward and Castro Valley, Malca launched her second career as a civic activist, or as she puts it, “a pioneer of controversy in the community.” She worked for the Community Welfare Council in Oakland until the birth of the first of her two sons, David and Barry. As a young mother, she joined the League of Women Voters and was soon a leader in its Eden Unit, spearheading a study of the Hayward city government and helping to draft and secure voter approval for substantial charter revisions. She was active in campaigns for local political figures, including March Fong Eu’s election to the State Assembly as the second woman and first Asian American in the California legislature. She was also prominent in numerous battles to counter right-wing-John Birch Society-McCarthyite pressures in the Hayward area and to secure increased funding for local schools.
In 1967, Malca was hired by Willa Baum, long-time director of the Regional Oral History Office. Her background in political issues and personal relationships with East Bay women who had entered the arena of local and statewide government soon led to the development of one of ROHO’s earliest major projects, California Women Political Leaders, focusing on elected officials, political party officers, and community leaders from 1920 to 1970. She documented an era where women in elected offices at the state and federal levels were few and far between, demonstrating how they had nevertheless long been active, if often behind the scenes, in governance of political parties and community organizations, in local government and on school boards. She helped secure project funding for the Women Political Leaders project from multiple sources, including the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Rockefeller Foundation, honing an essential survival skill in an office that was funded almost solely by grants and gifts. Malca directed the Women Political Leaders project and was eventually tapped to conduct interviews in a variety of other subject areas, from banking to education to health care, even as she became the primary interviewer on California water policy for many years. Her wide-ranging work on water—from sanitary engineers to the founders of Save-the-Bay, from Governor Pat Brown and state water resource managers to the architects of the historic federal Central Valley Project Improvement Act—has made the Oral History Center’s collection an essential source for researchers on California water issues.
Willa Baum soon recognized Malca’s organizational skills, work ethic, and attention to detail and enlisted her for key tasks in office management. In the oral history, Malca describes preparing style and indexing guidelines for her projects, which became templates for many others. She researched average times to complete each aspect of the oral history process, an essential budgeting tool. Most impressive was the multi-paged comprehensive production manual, outlining each task in the oral history process, whose responsibility it was, and in which file drawer each stage of the evolving transcript should be placed, an essential document for an office primarily staffed by a shifting array of part-time workers, as many as thirty people sharing desks in a four-room space. Malca also discusses her contributions to outreach, including performing with Amelia Fry in a play based on ROHO’s interviews with suffragists. Throughout the oral history she recalls many of the ROHO women (almost all staff members were women), and the leadership qualities of Willa Baum, as well as friendships, fun, and challenges of her three-decade career with the Regional Oral History Office.
From January to May 2015, Malca and I met for seven sessions at her Hayward home to record her oral history. After receiving the lightly edited transcript, she undertook her characteristically careful review, did further research to check her facts, and added in names or details she had overlooked. She did not edit her words beyond a few clarifying changes. As we finished the review, Malca was packing up her house for a move to a retirement community nearby. Ever the careful historian, as she sifted through files she gathered historically significant papers and placed them with the Hayward Area Historical Society or the Bancroft Library, as appropriate. Her research files relating to water issues went to the Water Resources Center Archives (now the Water Resources Collections and Archives at UC Riverside) when she retired from ROHO.
Nearly all of the oral histories Malca Chall conducted during her ROHO career are available on line through the Oral History Center website, where also can be found the oral history with former director Willa K. Baum, conducted in part by Malca Chall. The Oral History Center is a division of the Bancroft Library and is under the direction of Martin Meeker. Special thanks are due to David Dunham who directs the World War II American Home Front project; he first tapped Malca as a Rosie interviewee and has shepherded this oral history throughout the process.
Out From the Archives: Caroline Service, State Department Duty in China, the McCarthy Era, and After, 1933-1977
Out From the Archives: Caroline Service, State Department Duty in China, the McCarthy Era, and After, 1933-1977
“I was tired of being silent.” On December 13, 1951 Caroline Service marched into Senator Hiram Bingham’s office because she “wanted to see the man at the top.” Hours earlier, Bingham’s Loyalty Review Board had determined that her husband, John S. “Jack” Service, would be fired from the State Department on charges of dubious loyalty to the United States. Bingham’s office staff tried to put her off, but Caroline announced that she had nothing else to do and would wait all afternoon for the senator. They let her in. Caroline recalls on page 141 of her oral history, Bingham took her hand and greeted her, “What can I do for you, little lady?” “I could have screamed. ‘Little lady.’ Awful.” She told Bingham that he had done a great injustice to a worthy man. He replied, “Many people have had grave injustices done to them,” and showed her out.
Caroline Service’s oral history, recorded in 1977 by Rosemary Levenson, is volume II to her husband John S. Service’s oral history, but it stands on its own for its unique perspective on foreign service life and the McCarthy witch hunts. Her oral history also details many experiences that were Caroline’s alone. Jack was already in Kunming, China, in 1933 when Caroline, newly graduated from Oberlin, sailed from San Francisco to join and marry him in Haiphong. The journey took her nearly two months, and included having her appendix removed in Shanghai and a terrible typhoon on board a boat moored off Hainan Island. During her time in China, Caroline would be evacuated three times — the first in 1935, the second in 1937, and the last in 1940 — all while Jack remained in China. The Services spent six and a half of their first thirteen years of marriage separated by war and Jack’s work.
In 1951 the country was gripped by anti-Communist hysteria and Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunts found victims in government, academia, and entertainment. Jack Service and his State Department colleagues, the “China hands,” made convenient targets. They were blamed for “losing China,” accused of being Communists, and fired or forced to resign in disgrace. It began for the Services in 1945 when Jack was arrested by the FBI on charges of espionage in the Amerasia case. Caroline, seven months pregnant and staying with her parents in Berkeley, heard the news on the radio. Two months later, in Washington D.C., Caroline would deliver their son Philip on the day Jack was exonerated. The Service family would enjoy a brief period of calm, a post in New Zealand, and the feeling that, “It was over. Nobody would be attacking us or be after us… Jack was no longer connected with China at this time” (page 111). But Jack’s loyalty would be called into question again in 1949 when the Communists won out over the nationalists and diplomatic relations with China broke down.
The Services were determined to appeal the loyalty board verdict, clear Jack’s name, and restore his State Department status. They were vindicated in 1957 when the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Jack’s favor. Later that year, Jack was reinstated at the State Department though he never again was given a sensitive post or a promotion, and he retired early in 1962. After retirement, the Services settled in Oakland and Jack enrolled at UC Berkeley for a master’s in political science. He had a second career at the Center for Chinese Studies, and in 1971 the Services traveled again to China. On page 202 Caroline describes her surprise as their lives circled back around: “If someone had told me earlier that I was going to China in 1971 I would have said, ‘Impossible.’ We never could have believed that such a thing would happen.”
Julie Allen, Oral History Center
From the Director: Oral History, Free Speech & Listening
For the past five years, the Oral History Center at UC Berkeley has hosted an annual event in which we honor and express our gratitude to those individuals who donated their time and energy by agreeing to be interviewed. Held every spring, we run this event as a commencement ceremony. We read the names of each narrator whose interview was completed over the year (111 in 2016-2017!), we show video clips from selected interviews, and then we offer our sincere congratulations to the “Oral History Class” of that year. This event has been amazingly successful, each year attracting nearly 100 individuals. Campus friends, community partners, donors, and, of course, our interviewees and often their families too. The event is equally special to the wide range of our interviewees, whether that be a retired Berkeley professor who has spent decades on campus or to a woman who worked in the shipyards in World War II and despite living a few miles from Berkeley had never stepped foot on campus before this event.
This year, in spite of invitations mailed and catering secured, the event almost didn’t happen. As luck would have it, another event was booked for the same night as our event: controversial conservative pundit Ann Coulter was set to speak on campus. Chances are you know what follows because the whole imbroglio became national news, but here’s a brief rundown to serve as a reminder: conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos was invited by Berkeley College Republicans to speak on campus on February 1, 2017. In response to this anticipated speech, protesters assembled and, later in the evening, the protests turned violent when anarchists took over and ran roughshod over the university and nearby downtown Berkeley, vandalizing businesses and causing general mayhem. People were injured and the university and city suffered fairly widespread (and expensive) property damage. And Milo was prevented from speaking. The College Republicans, frustrated and humiliated by the events of February 1st, doubled-down and invited Ann Coulter to speak. In the weeks and days before her scheduled appearance, rhetoric from all sides flared, initially sparked by anarchists who vowed to use violent tactics to prevent her from speaking. We waited until the last minute, hoping that cooler heads would prevail, but a few days before the event was to take place the university police recommended that we cancel, suggesting that they couldn’t guarantee security to our staff or our attendees — which spooked us a great deal considering that many of those expected to attend were elderly and unfamiliar with the campus.
I personally found the whole set of events depressing, even disturbing, and I began to think about the relationship between free speech and the power of listening, of hearing — and, thus, of the relationship of each to what we practice in our office: oral history. And while this audience needs no definition of oral history, I think it worth mentioning that all of our interviews are preceded by extensive research, the interviews are recorded on digital video and transcribed in their entirety so that interviewees are given the opportunity to review and approve their interviews prior to their release to the public. That is, in a nutshell, how we practice listening, hearing… oral history.
Within a few weeks, we decided to reschedule the event (it was held on June 22nd), and it went off without a hitch! We expected about 60 people to show, but more than 90 people attended, including 98-year old Ed Howden, a legendary civil rights pioneer who staged free speech gatherings on the Berkeley campus when he was a student — in 1940! What follows are the remarks that I prepared for that event and I hope that you find them to be of interest and perhaps inspire you to recognize the importance of the work we do as oral historians in this day and age.
I want to welcome everyone to the Oral History Class of 2017 Commencement Celebration — the fifth annual hosting of this very special event! As you probably know, we needed to reschedule from April because of the anticipated appearance of a controversial speaker on campus, and the threat of violent response by groups of individuals who wanted to prevent that speaker from appearing.
Our event was a casualty of the moment, but one might say that free speech was a casualty too — which is a difficult scenario to watch for someone who relishes in the fact that this university was the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement just over 50 years ago! But, you can breathe a sigh of relief: I’m not going to lecture about that speaker or those who were opposed to her this evening. But I do want to begin this event with a few thoughts about the integral connections between free speech and oral history.
The First Amendment to our Constitution guarantees that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech …” and this has been widely understood to mean that as a people we are granted the right to speak our minds, to pronounce our opinions (popular or unpopular), and even to say things that others might deem obscene or distasteful, so long as these words do not incite violence. As such, our doctrine of free speech is absolutely necessary for the successful practice of oral history — for the practice of recording subjective memories of times past and often opinionated interpretations of the impact of the past on our lives today. Not the interviewer or anyone else can guarantee the right to our narrators to speak freely for that right is granted to them by our most fundamental laws.
Quite happily, our narrators freely invoke their rights and convey stories both mundane and profound, political opinions widely shared and deeply unpopular, accounts of events that hew closely to previously-accepted versions and recollections that depart wildly from what we think we know. As an interviewer, I appreciate — indeed, cherish — everything that comes out in an interview and am always gratified that even in this day and age of perpetual scrutiny of what we say, people still feel a great deal of freedom to speak their minds and share their innermost thoughts. This, I think, is a true strength and contribution of oral history: the creation of a venue for the exercise of the freedom of speech
But there is another element here that I most want to emphasize today — something that is just as necessary and perhaps even more powerful than free speech itself. This is something that we might see as the verso of free speech and this is the call to listen so that all this speech might actually be heard. Indeed, one might argue that we live in a world with too much speech, not nearly enough listening. I think that people tend to speak more loudly and say things that are more extreme not necessarily because they hold true to those beliefs closely but because they feel like they are just not being heard in the first place.
This is where the unrecognized transformative power and importance of oral history resides: oral historians have spent decades (well, millennia if you go back to Herodotus and Thucydides) perfecting the art, the craft, the scholarly methodology of interviewing, of listening, of actually hearing what our narrators are saying. The good oral historian is not merely a passive sounding board, quietly nodding while making sure the recording equipment is working. Instead, the good oral historian listens deeply to what our narrator is saying, simultaneously comparing it to what we’ve heard others say, and then asks follow-up questions seeking clarification, new information, confirmation or disputation of interpretations. In this way, good oral historians communicate to their narrators that they are being heard, that their ideas are being wrestled with, that their version of events … matters!
By being truly heard in this fashion, our narrators don’t typically feel the need to shout, to defame, to become frustrated. Instead, they rise to the occasion and present their stories almost always in thoughtful and in-depth sentences often replete with new insights. Human discourse is elevated in these settings and, well, I think that we are all better for it. Thus, in oral history we discover not only a place in which the freedom of speech is beautifully enacted, but just as importantly, a place in which the person who goes to the trouble of giving their point of view actually feels heard. And, I want to point out that none of this could be actualized without the thoughtful and engaged work done by our staff of interviewers, editors, and technologists or the generous contributions of you, our interviewees.
This is why I’m so proud of the work that we do at the Oral History Center. This is a unique and valuable place in which we solicit, value, and hear stories from people across all walks of life: people who come to us from different economic, education, racial, ethnic, gender, religious, ideological, and political backgrounds and beliefs. In the class of 2017, our interviewees ranged in age from 27 to 98; they were born in the US and abroad and live in states from New York to Oklahoma to California; they are CEOs and social activists; attorneys and welders; former Fire Chiefs and pioneering linguists; they are Republicans, Democrats, independents or their political affiliation is simply unknown to us. I should add that this profound diversity of narrators demonstrates that Berkeley’s Oral History Center does not discriminate by recording interviews only with those whom we view as heroic or as validating beliefs that we hold personally — we seek to interview and to listen to as many varied individuals as possible. We value all voices and we treat each interviewee the same: we endeavor to truly hear what they — what you — have to say.
Charles B. Faulhaber Director
Oral History Center at UC Berkeley
Highlights from the Oral History Class of 2017!
Jim Chappell is one of San Francisco’s unsung heroes. Chappell, who is thoughtful, articulate, savvy, and pragmatic, has helped shape San Francisco into a modern city. Have you ever used SPUR’s Ballot Analysis to help you understand the county’s elections? Chappell writes those. Have you noticed that Union Square looks and feels better than it used to? Chappell worked on its redesign. Have you ever wondered how MUNI functions? Chappell makes sure that it works for its riders.
There are dozens of other projects on which Chappell worked during his tenure as SPUR’s Executive Director from which we benefit. There are many projects that are unknown because they are invisible to us, and this is because he has made it so we don’t have to think much about them. He has spent much of his career making San Francisco a manageable city (aside from housing prices, another he issue that he and SPUR work on consistently).
In our interview with Chappell, which was conducted in 2016 by Todd Holmes and Shanna Farrell, we explore some of the lesser known histories of planning in the city. By the virtue of his training and experience, he is an expert of what makes San Francisco function, what its greatest needs and challenges have been, and how to work within a system to affect change to keep it working for its residents. His interview is like the oral history version of the 99% Invisible podcast, and Chappell shares a part of San Francisco’s history that can’t be found elsewhere.
Malcolm Margolin: “Such a goddamn beautiful life”: Conversations about Heyday Press and Everything Else
The Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library is pleased to announce the release of a new life history interview with Malcolm Margolin, author, publisher, and founder of Heyday Books in Berkeley. In twenty-two wide-ranging interviews, Kim Bancroft and Malcolm Margolin explore Margolin’s childhood in Boston, his education at Harvard, his travels, his friendships and family life, his work as a publisher, historian, and writer, and much more. These are conversations between friends, conducted from 2011-2013 in celebration of Heyday’s 40th anniversary in 2014, and the tone is warm. The 22 interviews were the basis for the book, The Heyday of Malcolm Margolin: The Damn Good Times of an Independent Publisher. We are thrilled to add the complete oral history, “Malcolm Margolin: ‘Such a goddamn beautiful life’: Conversations about Heyday Press and Everything Else,” to our collection.
Linda Norton, Senior Editor
Oral History Center, The Bancroft Library
Conservation and Craftsmanship: Brian Considine, Senior Conservator of Decorative Arts & Architecture at The J. Paul Getty Museum
As a mere museum-goer I have often longed to touch one of the beautiful artworks on display only to be stayed by a watchful security guard or cordoned off to my appropriate space by a prohibitive velvet rope. It’s in that very moment that a set of questions emerge. Who gets to know these objects on a more intimate scale? Whose hands actually get to touch these works of art? The answer to both these questions is resoundingly the museum’s conservator.
In continuation of the Oral History Center’s ongoing collaboration with The Getty Trust we are pleased to release our interview with the J. Paul Getty Museum’s longtime Senior Conservator of Decorative Arts and Sculpture, Brian Considine.
Considine recently retired from the Getty Museum, but his legacy lives on. In his over twenty years of service, Considine oversaw the creation of the museum’s decorative arts conservation laboratory, consulted on the preservation of King Tut’s tomb in Egypt, ensured the structural integrity of the museum’s many textiles, sculptures and 18th French cabinets, and managed the installation of the Getty Museum’s historical panel rooms.
A furniture maker with professional training in gilding and marquetry, Considine is an expert in the connoisseurship and conservation of 18th century French furniture and decorative arts. In other words, it’s his hands that have gilded countless furniture items from Louis XIV’s reign and felt for the rough unfinished bottoms of authentic period pieces. Conservation and craftsmanship are, after all, incredibly tactile practices.
Drawing from his experience as a furniture maker, Considine describes how he engages with furniture objects:
“You touch it. You rub it. The feel of the wood on the palm of your hand is so important. Any furniture maker will tell you—. Except like Knoll or something. But I mean any hand furniture maker will tell you that rubbing it is just so important. And the smell. The smell is a combination of the wood and the finish, but—. If the finish is a really nasty synthetic lacquer or something, it’s got this sharp, biting smell. Whereas if it’s linseed oil and wax, which is what I used, it’s got this soft, natural, rich smell.”
Considine’s interview is an important addition and resource for anyone interested in 18th century French furniture, the shifting practices of arts conservation, and the larger importance of preserving material culture from around the world. We invite you to watch the following excerpt with Considine talking about the J. Paul Getty Museum’s Ledoux panel room and read his complete oral history at the OHC website.
We are thrilled to release our latest interview in partnership with the Getty Trust: the artist Robert Irwin on his Central Garden for the Getty Museum. Joining Irwin for the second interview session was Jim Duggan, the master gardener who facilitated Irwin’s vision for a garden that has become a living, breathing, evolving piece of sculpture — not to mention one of the most visited and popular pieces of art at the museum.
Robert Irwin was born in Long Beach, California, in 1928. As a young man, he worked as a lifeguard and professional swing dancer while creating his early paintings. In the 1950s, he became a pioneer of the “Light and Space” movement popular with a handful of now very influential southern California artists. Later in the 1960s and 1970s he moved away from painting and developed what he called “conditional art,” or art that was created in direct response to various physical, experiential, and situation conditions. In the early 1990s, he was brought in by the Getty Trust to design the new Getty Museum’s garden. Although the museum’s architect, Richard Meier, was not a fan of Irwin’s imaginative creation, the Getty Central Garden has proved to be extremely popular with visitors and is now regarded as a masterpiece of landscape art.
Oral Histories on the Management of Intercollegiate Athletics at UC Berkeley: 1960 – 2014
These forty five oral history interviews are part of the larger oral history project: Oral Histories on the Management of Intercollegiate Athletics at UC Berkeley: 1960 – 2014. The project includes approximately seventy interviews conducted from 2009-2014 by John Cummins, Associate Chancellor – Chief of Staff, Emeritus who worked under Chancellors Heyman, Tien, Berdahl and Birgeneau from 1984 – 2008. Intercollegiate Athletics reported to him from 2004 – 2006. The purpose of the project is to explore the history of the management of Intercollegiate Athletics at UC Berkeley from the 1960s to the present. The interviews are with a cross sampling of individuals who played key roles in the management of intercollegiate athletics over that period of time: Chancellors, Athletic Directors, senior administrators, Faculty Athletic Representatives, other key faculty members, directors of the Recreational Sports Program, alumni/donors, administrators in the Athletic Study Center, and others.
Two publications by The Center for Studies in Higher Education at UC Berkeley, based in part on the oral histories, are listed below. The first (2013), co- authored by Cummins and Kirsten Hextrum, a PhD student in the Graduate School of Education, a member and two-time national champion of Cal Women’s Crew from 2003 – 2007, and a former tutor-adviser in the Athletic Study Center, addresses administrative and management issues at UC Berkeley that typically concern those responsible for the conduct of a Division I-A intercollegiate athletics program. It assumes that such a program will continue for many years to come and that it provides important benefits for the Cal community. Its focus is principally on the market-driven, multi-billion dollar phenomenon of the big-time sports of men’s football and basketball, their development over time and their intersection with the academic world. The Olympic or non-revenue sports at UC Berkeley more closely resemble the amateur intercollegiate ideal, with high graduation rates and successful programs. Even these sports programs, however, are gradually being pulled into the more highly commercialized model.
A second paper by Cummins (2017) deals with the history and financing of the construction of the Barclay Simpson Student Athlete High Performance Center and the renovation of Berkeley’s Memorial Stadium. These two interrelated projects, costing $474 million and largely debt financed, are the most expensive intercollegiate athletics capital projects in the nation. Their history and financing illustrate the complexity and challenges faced by university administrators in managing big-time intercollegiate athletics programs
THE MANAGEMENT OF INTERCOLLEGIATE ATHLETICS AT UC BERKELEY: TURNING POINTS AND CONSEQUENCES by John Cummins and Kirsten Hextrum CSHE.12.13 (November 2013).
A CAUTIONARY ANALYSIS OF A BILLION DOLLAR ATHLETIC EXPENDITURE by John Cummins, UC Berkeley CSHE 3.17 (February 2017).
New Release: Rick Laubscher – San Francisco Journalist, PR Executive, and Founder of Market Street Railway
Today we are excited to release the oral history interview of Rick Laubscher. Born in 1949, Rick came of age amid the bustle of Market Street at the family’s business, Laubschers’ Delicatessen. It was in these early years that he developed a fascination in transportation, and a special love of streetcars; the “iron monsters” that rumbled through the streets of San Francisco and past the family’s delicatessen. He spent countless hours as a child drawing city maps (to scale) for his collection of Matchbox trams and buses. And during the age of lava lamps and flower power, his dorm room walls at U.C. Santa Cruz were adorned with transportation maps. Indeed, Rick had what he called “the transportation bug,” a condition that would only grow in time.
On the campus of U.C. Santa Cruz, however, Rick also developed an interest in journalism. He created the University’s first radio station, albeit unregistered with the FCC, and upon graduation headed to New York to study at the Columbia School of Journalism, where he was awarded the Pulitzer Fellowship. Returning to California, he started his career as a broadcast journalist with KGTV in San Diego. Here he helped pioneer live reporting in the Southern California market, and won two “Golden Mike” awards for his work. In 1977, Rick returned home to San Francisco as a reporter for KRON-TV. If Herb Caen was the voice of San Francisco, Rick Laubscher was certainly seen by some as the dandy of the city’s television news. Immaculately dressed in a three-piece suit, Rick reported on a number of historic events, most notably the assassination of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. Rick knew both the victims and the killer, and his coverage of the tragedy won him an Emmy Award.
In 1980, Rick left broadcast journalism to embark on a new career as a public-relations executive with the Bechtel Group in San Francisco. Over the next two decades, he worked around the world on behalf of Bechtel, crafting communication programs for both the company and their international clients. In the process, he helped mend relations between San Francisco and its business community, fostering a network of associates that would open the door for a dual career in civic service.
Rick’s affinity for streetcars is matched only by his love for San Francisco. And for nearly forty years, while working for Bechtel and later in private practice, he undertook numerous projects to give back to the City by the Bay. He served on the executive boards of the Chamber of Commerce, SPUR, and the JASON Foundation for Education, and was the founding Chairman of the City Club of San Francisco, one of the first fully open business and civic organizations in the City’s financial district. Above all, he revamped Market Street Railway, the nonprofit that brought vintage streetcars back to San Francisco. What started with an idea among likeminded enthusiasts—Rick calls it a “Mickey Rooney / Julie Garland Moment” of “Why don’t we get the kids together and put on a show”—finally took root in the summer of 1983 with San Francisco’s Historic Trolley Festival. Its popularity and international acclaim quickly made the festival an annual event. And by 1995, streetcars once again became permanent fixtures on the City streets. As President and CEO of Market Street Railway, Rick guided this effort with unrelenting energy. He assembled a diverse cast of supporters, searched around the world to secure additional streetcars, and skillfully navigated the city bureaucracy to make his vision of permanent streetcar lines to San Francisco a reality. For the fourth-generation San Franciscan who excitedly watched the “iron monsters” rumble down Market Street as a kid, it was simply a labor of love.
This oral history offers a look at San Francisco through the eyes of one of its remarkable residents. From journalism to business and an astonishing array of civic endeavors, Rick Laubscher helped shape the city he called home.
In partnership with independent interviewer Basya Petnick, the Oral History Center is pleased to make available her interview with renowned Cantor Roslyn Jhunever Barak. By way of introduction to this remarkable interview, we have reprinted excerpts from Ms. Petnick’s interview history below.
An interview history is a little piece of meta-historiography—a history of a history—intended to help the reader understand the interviews more completely. Typically, this piece discloses the purpose of the interviews, the relationship between the participants, and any special circumstances that developed during the interviewing, transcription, and editing processes.
Twenty-five years ago I came to the field of oral history from the worlds of literature, journalism, and creative writing, along with a lifelong interest in religious and spiritual matters. No doubt these interests affected the questions I asked and did not ask in the interviews. Mostly, however, my attention was focused on the task that oral history does so well, and that is to add to the existing record of a subject area, either through topical interviews with a number of people, or through the lens of one person’s full-life history…
Like an ethnographer, the oral historian “occupies a position of structural location and observes with a particular angle of vision.” Age, gender, race, insider/outsider position, social status, and other factors are well known to affect the conduct and outcomes of oral history interviews.
Prior to the start of this project, I knew Cantor Barak only in a formal way, as “my cantor,” the senior cantor of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, where I had been a member for twenty years.
We had at once no prior relationship and yet at the same time an extremely important relationship. Hers was the voice that called me to prayer on Shabbat morning and evening and on the High Days. Hers was the voice that chanted the Kaddish for my family members on their yahrzeit year after year; hers was the voice by the bed and gravesides of ill and grief-stricken friends. Hers was the voice on my anshei mitzvah (adult bat mitzvah) study tapes from which I learned the prayers and blessings and, of course, my Torah portion: I knew well Cantor Barak’s every breath and phrasing of our basic Reform Jewish liturgy, which I had learned not just for my ansheit mitzvah but for a lifetime. Her prayers literally had become my prayers and, without specifically intending it, we had entered into a unique relationship that only a cantor/teacher and congregant/student may have: that of praying the liturgy together syllable-by-syllable, breath-by-breath. I was in awe of her vocal ability and had great respect for her as a senior member of the Emanu-El clergy, but because of her congenial personality I felt at home and comfortable with her during the interviews and enjoyed talking together in our profession roles of oral historian and cantor.
Over the years, I had attended many services led by Cantor Barak, and while seated in one or another of Emanu-El’s three sanctuaries, I watched the world around her change. As the decades passed, the popularity of organs, choirs, complex music, and a cantor-dominated service declined, while the contemporary, guitar-led, arms-around-my-neighbor, clapping and communal singing of all the prayers by everyone gained popularity and momentum. In time it became clear that camp-style participatory singing was a fait accompli. Naturally I did what all oral historians must do: take digital recorder in hand, research and write questions, and begin to document significant change.
In the spring of 2013, I invited Cantor to discuss the prospect of recording her oral history. During our luncheon, I talked with her about why I thought her oral history would be valuable to researchers, congregants, Jewish music enthusiasts, and other cantors now and in the years to come. She seemed comfortable with the idea of being interviewed extensively; she asked key questions and attentively listened to responses.
To interview Cantor Barak repeatedly is to be included in the soft whirl of friendly chaos that gently surrounds her life. In her world, there is always someone coming in or going out, someone calling on the house phone or cell phone, or someone at the door. There may be an old New York friend or a temple in Texas calling, but regardless, all Barak household activities are punctuated by barking, or by someone telling the dog to please stop barking. And there are always dogs. In the course of about a year—the time it took to complete the twelve interviews—Figaro, a disturbed Jack Russell terrier mix, and a psycho poodle named Elmo came and went, until finally, Schatzy, a little schnauzer, came to stay.
There was a continual stream of repairs and repairmen that joined our quiet time together. First it was a serious water leak, and then something that involved the garage, and then a crew with chain saws arrived to limb the trees right outside her house. At some point, jackhammers became included in the interviews, as well as tree branches of varying sizes, and pieces of the neighbors’ concrete that had to be removed in an enormous truck with the loudest backup warning sounds I have ever heard. During the interviews, there were instructions to be given, cautions to be issued, and dog walkers and friends to be greeted. There were potential renters and their agents to see the house before Cantor’s impending temporary move to Dallas. There were doorbells ringing and someone stopping by for just a minute. There was often something lost … often something that is “here … someplace.” There was David Olick, her partner, a lawyer working at home. There were iPads and iPhones and a 50” TV screen and laughter and apologies for all of it, and generous offerings of fruit and tea and other lovely gifts. If all this were happening in my quiet, almost monastic life, I might go nuts, but at Cantor’s, I enjoyed it. To her it was normal, and it became normal to me, too. I especially enjoyed her dogs and missed them when they were returned to the dog rescue because they were quirky and refused to be trained.
A curious thing about the interviews I conducted in her home is that she didn’t face me. During the recording sessions, she would sit in her leather recliner, stare into space and talk, while I sat on a nearby couch to the side of her. This meant that no nonverbal clues were possible: I couldn’t see her face and she couldn’t see mine. I couldn’t see her eyes to know the effects of my questions or learn if there were any disconnects between her facial expression and her verbal responses. Further, to redirect the flow of her narrative from that position required that I make a serious verbal incursion into the swift tide of thoughts and memories that formed her responses. I did not try to change this arrangement, however, because she seemed so utterly comfortable with it, and I deeply knew that the interviews would be more fruitful if she were completely comfortable. I report this simply as a description of “what the body did” during the interviews; it goes to the somatic side of the story, the part the reader cannot see.
To continue recounting factors that influenced the interviews: we are both Jews, and therefore, an important influence in our interviews was the prohibition in Jewish life against lashon hara, which might be understood as harmful speech. More than just avoiding gossip, this practice requires not speaking in a harmful way on any occasion. But talking and not talking about people is tricky, because from the start, one’s life is full of people—we cannot even live without being connected to people—but, when mindful of lashon hara, there is often little that can be said about others, as much as we might like to say more. It’s similar to how we use or do not use humor: one wants to tell a joke because it expresses a truth and seems funny, but it might be hurtful to in-laws or the elderly or a certain ethnic group, so we don’t do it: on a good day we resist the impulse.
Another inhibition that slightly constrained the interviews was the “gag order” that had been imposed on Emanu-El clergy by their board of directors during the days when Rabbi Robert Kirschner was stepping down from his position as senior rabbi. While Cantor Barak was deeply affected by his demise, she spoke cautiously about that incident, and I did not probe for more.
Also missing from the interviews are questions about what is like to be a female cantor. Not many women like to be asked what it is like to be a female this or a female that. The question can be unintentionally diminishing, and I could not bring myself to ask it. I had learned at the outset of my research that soon after Cantor Barak began her training at Hebrew Union College, the program filled with female cantorial candidates. As it has been said, “Female cantors are so ubiquitous now that some people are even surprised to see males in the role!” I also knew that during her many years at Emanu-El, she had served on a staff of clergy that included several female rabbis, a female lay cantorial singer, and strong women on the board of a temple where women are notably powerful and gender not a major issue. Of course, it was not always this way. Long before women were invested as cantors, Julie Rosewald, a lay cantorial soloist with a beautiful, classically trained voice, led the prayers and directed the music at Congregation Emanu-El for nine years. Sadly, she has been left out of important histories written about Emanu-El and is not included in the photo history posted on the wall outside of two of the three sanctuaries. From the start, Cantor Barak reminded me to be sure to include Julie Rosewald in this oral history; subsequently, we discussed Rosewald’s contribution in the interviews below.
What I wanted to know and could not find out through either my interviews or research is: what is the effect on the hearer of the female voice as opposed to the male voice? What is the difference in the impact of the sound of the liturgy sung by a female in the soprano/alto range from the impact of the liturgy sung in the male tenor/baritone range? This question is difficult both to formulate and to answer.