Over the course of a semester I’ve read, written, and compiled information about basketball camps, inner city youth arts education, a gymnastics team, Jerry Springer, the Vienna Volksoper, and Frango Mints, amongst many other things. The breadth of experiences and anecdotes covered in Professor Gilfoyle’s interviews is one major takeaway; in ten interviews I’ve gotten to read and learn about the evolution of Chicago — both as a city and as a community.
I believe that the most important takeaway for me in working on the CHM Oral History Project has been my participation in the generation of historical documents and sources. While I certainly took pride in the value of my work for, as Professor Gilfoyle put it at the end of each interview, “future historians,” I was even more interested in the benefits and limits of working with oral interviews as a primary source.
In processing and cleaning up these interviews, I became keenly aware of their limitations. There were many times where editing could only go so far, where the limitations of technology and audio recordings left a word or passage unintelligible. Beyond these technical limitations, there are other obvious but equally critical ones. Professor Gilfoyle may not ask the questions that a future historian wish he’d ask, or want clarification about — these interviews are entirely impacted by the working relationship and rapport that the interviewer and interviewee have with one another. An even more basic but problematic issue is that of memory; what has the subject forgotten? What have they left out in their answer?
It’s easy, I think, for young history students to implicitly trust sources that we find — there is value in a quote or source that can be easily plugged into a paper or argument. After this experience I’ve recognized that it’s incredibly important to interrogate sources, understand their limitations and strengths. Even in the most raw primary sources, a process of selection, of deciding what is or is not important, has taken place; reminding myself of these obvious but overlooked dimensions of research is the thing I’m most grateful for from this internship.
The last interview I took on for Professor Gilfoyle was with the former baseball player and longtime Secretary of State for Illinois, Jesse White. White’s interview touched on a wide variety of subjects, from backroom politics in Springfield to discrimination he faced as a ball player in Southern cities. When processing this interview, I became acutely aware of the limitations that impact oral histories and interviews.
White, like several others interviewed by Professor Gilfoyle, is used to sharing and repeating personal facts and anecdotes — in running for election and reelection, it could hardly be considered a surprise that Jesse White had some canned answers. In some cases, answers and stories that were mentioned earlier in the interview were repeated. This is of course understandable, and Professor Gilfoyle has talked with me about his efforts to provoke and draw out more unique quotes and stories.
Even after Professor Gilfoyle engages and follows up on White’s responses, there is still a complication. When asked about problems with police brutality in Chicago, White begins to advocate for a kind of respectability politics, arguing that kindness and deference to police officers prevents violence. The topic was brought up in part by Professor Gilfoyle, and White definitely used outdated information about the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri. However, Professor Gilfoyle and the historical audience were robbed from further insight into the politician’s opinion because White’s aide cut off the conversation, bluntly steering the discussion back towards White’s association with Martin Luther King Jr. We are subject to the breadth and engagement of the interviewer with his subject, but we’re also subject to the interviewee’s willingness to discuss and think critically about the times in question.
This weekend I’m planning a wrap up post, wherein I’ll reflect on what I’ve learned about oral histories as a primary source.
Professor Gilfoyle was generous enough to let me choose which interviews to work on. I was conscious of trying to select a wide range of professions and backgrounds from the list; however, biases are an unavoidable part of any selection process. My list contained two corporate CEOs, architects, journalists, singers, philanthropists, educators, and a basketball coach. While the professions were diverse, some other aspects of the interviews I selected were not; I only had three women in my list of ten interviewees (Carol Marin, Ronne Hartfield, and Fritzie Fritzshall) and two people of color (Jesse White and Ronne Hartfield).
All of this is a roundabout way of relating how much I enjoyed Art Johnston’s interview, which covered a diverse and fascinating range of topics. Johnston, unlike many of the people interviewed, is not necessarily identified with one institution or another (although his work with Equality Illinois is both important and widely respected). Beyond Johnston’s obvious humor and comfort in dealing with sensitive, difficult subjects in the LGBT community, his story of political grassroots organization was particularly inspiring to me (especially in these tumultuous and disheartening times).
I knew almost nothing about the development of the LGBT community in Chicago, and found the importance of gay bars in the community’s coalescence very interesting. Of course, it makes sense; gay people assemble and socialize out of gay bars, at the time one of the few places were queer behavior was welcomed and accepted. It does force me to think about a different kind of historical bias — the sort of settings and places where we think that “serious” historical work happens. Bars are social meeting places, and common pretty much around the world in one form or another, but apart from a few examples (Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch comes to mind) I can’t think many examples of bars figuring prominently in historical academia.
This is of course a generalization, but I also think it’s important to think critically about where our sources come from, and where there are historical silences in our sources– traditionally, a source like Art Johnston may not necessarily have been deemed important.
Also, he mentioned Frango Mints, which was another check in the “pro” column.
The interview with Fritzie Fritzshall was one of the most fascinating interviews I’ve processed. For the most part, recipients of the Making History Award are people who are familiar with being interviewed. They are often CEOs, actors, journalists — celebrities in their fields.
Fritzie Fritzshall, Holocaust Survivor and President of the The Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, was clearly uncomfortable with the interview format. She often interjected and expressed doubt that anyone would be interested in what she had to say. This was really interesting to me because Fritzshall is heavily involved in Holocaust education; she still conducts tours with school groups and visitors to the museum, sharing the horrific details of her life in the concentration camps. I think that Fritzshall was a little surprised not to be asked about her time in the camps, as Professor Gilfoyle focused the interview on her post-war experience and immigration to Chicago.
Coming right after Marhsall Field V’s interview, who was happy to talk about any subject and was affable and carefree, Fritzshall’s interview drew direct attention to the format of the interview itself. In several instances, especially early on, Fritzshall pushed back against Prof Gilfoyle, the award she had received, and even against the interview itself. Yet at the same time, I was also struck by her tenacity and by her continued involvement in Holocaust education. Every day she remembers and shares her experience of genocide. And, because she was reluctant and hesitant about the interview process, Fritzshall also produced a fascinating and unique oral history interview.
Of all the interviews I’ve processed, Marshall Field V’s was one of the most bizarre. I picked two different CEO/Philanthropists, Marshall Field V and Lester Crown. After Lester Crown’s interview spent so much time on boardroom intrigue, I didn’t anticipate Marshall Field to be so unconcerned with wealth and the business of running a corporation. Prof. Gilfoyle told me that it was the difference between old and new money, which is something I hadn’t really considered.
This isn’t to say that Field was a bad interview — I found him completely charming and affable. What was strange to me was the sort of blasé nature with which he discussed his business career. Successes and failures were light heartedly joked about, and in general it seemed like Field took very little seriously.
I think these kinds of impressions are important to catalogue. It’s easy to look at a list of interviews and categorize them, but that categorization also implies a similarity that may not be present at all. Oral interviews are in many ways more volatile than other sources because you really get a sense of the personality of the person involved, and those personalities often defy the neat categorizations we look for.
A bit of a departure was the interview that I processed with Helmut Jahn. I know next to nothing about architecture (the little I do know I learned in Prof. Gilfoyle’s class), so it was interesting to read about a world I know next to nothing about. Helmut Jahn is a well known architect responsible for one of the most hated buildings in Chicago: The Thompson Center. The large, avant garde government office building recently made the list of Chicago’s most endangered buildings, on account of how much the employees hate working there. Apparently, for all of its cutting edge design, it’s not the most comfortable place to have an office in.
It was interesting, then, that Jahn declared in his interview with Prof. Gilfoyle that the Thompson Center was his favorite creation. My personal favorite of Jahn’s is the Sony Center in Berlin, the colorfully lit plaza seen above. The Sony Center is a series of buildings with plenty of walkways and open air between them, tied together by the fantastical umbrella like roof.
One minor practical difficulty with this interview was the biography; since so much of Professor Gilfoyle’s interview focused on architecture, there was little biographical information to go on when it was time to write the biography. Some amalgamation of Prof. Gilfoyle’s notes and information from Jahn’s own website helped complete the trickier-than-normal bio.
One of the things that I need to do for every interview is to generate an index of terms. So even as I’m reading and correcting the interviews for formatting, I’m also writing any term, name, or thing that I think is important to include in an index. In the gallery you can see my notes and a sample page from the finished index for an interview Prof. Gilfoyle conducted with the award winning journalist and newscaster, Carol Marin.
One of the interesting questions for me when compiling these terms is which to include. I’ve settled on including any name, title, or thing that gets a full title. I find it more objective and factual than imposing rather more nebulous “themes” or topics. This does mean, of course, that I spend a fair amount of time googling and searching for names and things that may be misspelled in the transcript (which I then have to correct). Each interview has its own areas that were difficult; the Meyer interview, for example, had a very clean transcript, but the sheer number of universities, high schools, athletic programs, professional teams, coaches, and athletes mentioned in the interview meant that the index took more time to process.
One really fun interview that I processed was one that Prof. Gilfoyle conducted with actor and singer William Warfield. Warfield was perhaps most famous for his performances in Porgy and Bess, the 1934 opera by George Gershwin. Warfield performed and recorded with numerous composers, including Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland (for Copland’sOld American Songs). Warfield is also particularly well known for his performance in the 1951 Hollywood rendition of Showboat. Warfield was featured as the primary singer of the famous “Ol’ Man River” in that production. Warfield was also a teacher at the University of Illinois and Northwestern.
One of the really interesting things about the interview is Warfield’s discussion of race. Warfield was part of 6 different European tours for the U.S. Department of State, and consequently spent a significant part of his career abroad in Vienna touring Porgy and Bess. Other black performers and cast members from the tours have expressed how Europe was more welcoming, and less racially bigoted, than the United States. Warfield was a little less willing to express this in his interview, skirting a real discussion of racial discrimination in Europe vs. in the United States.
This interview was a pretty straightforward one to process; there was a fair amount of corrections, but nothing like the Lester Crown interview! This weekend I’ll post about one of the more specific tasks that I do for each interview: compiling an index of terms. Doesn’t that just fill you with excitement? I can barely contain myself.
The second interview that I’ve processed was conducted by Professor Gilfoyle with businessman and philanthropist Lester Crown. Lester Crown, a native of Evanston, is the son of Henry Crown, an enormously successful financier and businessman who, amongst other things, owned the Empire State Building, founded Material Service, and was on the board of General Dynamics. The Crown Foundation, run by the family, is an influential charitable organization that supports the arts, sciences, and Jewish causes.
Processing this interview was quite difficult! Somehow, presumably through different formatting changes over the years, a substantial portion of the punctuation within the word document was replaced with a “ÿ” symbol. Essentially, this meant that roughly 4-5 times a paragraph (and sometimes more) I had to delete the extraneous symbol and then try to analyze the syntax and grammar of the sentence. Sometimes the “ÿ” symbol would replace commas, sometimes “–“, sometimes “…”, and sometimes nothing at all! It was then up to me to reshape the punctuation of the sentence to best convey the meaning and conversational style of Mr. Crown. Consequently, this interview was extremely time consuming. For example, my first interview with Ray Meyer had 28 changes when I submitted it. The Lester Crown interview clocked in at 436 changes!
I did find the interview interesting– Henry Crown and his sons were at the center of the rise of merged, conglomerate corporations in the 20th century. The stories about board room maneuvering and politics were quite fascinating. And, of course, I got to learn a little more about the family that payed for Loyola University’s own Crown Center for the Humanities! About time, considering that I’ve taken classes there for two years.
Last week I finished processing my first interview, which was exciting and exhausting all at once. In 2005 Professor Gilfoyle sat down with Ray Meyer, the former coach of the DePaul Men’s Basketball team. Meyer played and coached for over 50 years, and he oversaw nearly every evolution in the sport of basketball: two handed shots, the rise of “big men,” the three point line, and numerous other changes in the game.
He was directly responsible for one major change, the evolution of “big men,” when he took DePaul freshman George Mikan and turned him into a bona fide star. Standing at 6’10”, the gangly, awkward young player was trained by Meyer, who even hired dance instructors to help Mikan with his footwork. At the time, nobody believed that a player as tall as Mikan could play with skill or finesse. George Mikan lead the nation in scoring at DePaul, and eventually organized basketball began to institute rule changes to accommodate larger center and frontcourt players. One of the drills that Meyer created for Mikan is still in use today: the Mikan Drill.
As an avid sports fan and fan of basketball in particular, I found the interview engaging. Hearing stories about the early days of basketball, before the one-handed shot and the jump shot, was a lot of fun. As a Golden State Warriors fan, the idea of a 22-20 final score in a game was bizarre. Meyer was full of stories about the Globetrotters, other legendary college coaches, and details about collegiate sports before it became the money-making behemot it is today.