Oral History

Airdate: December 10

This is Living Stories, featuring voices from the collections of the Baylor University Institute for Oral History. I'm Louis Mazé.

Oral history allows individuals to tell about their experiences in their own words. It's a guided process, in which the interviewer arrives prepared, having done the necessary research to ask the right kinds of questions. The goal is to create a recording that present and future generations can use.

Oral historian Dan Utley, currently at Texas State University in San Marcos, remembers what he learned while working with some exceptional history teachers early on in his career at Cy-Fair High School near Houston:

"And these were people who had the temerity to argue about history. And so we would have our breaks together, and we would sit around and argue history. And it's the first time I realized history's not just facts and dates and things like that, but it's—it can be interpreted. And this is where I start to realize there's more to history than just academics. That it's real, it's personal."

Utley recalls what attracted him to oral history:

"I love the fact that somebody else has got some information that I want and that I can help them go back and look at it and reanalyze it. And sometimes, you know, they haven't thought about it in a long time, and you can touch stories from their past that they've forgotten. You can take them back and reintroduce them to people they knew. And it's a wonderful opportunity. And I could not get enough of it. I just wanted to interview everybody (laughs) I could—I could think of."

Utley shares his particular method in choosing projects and interviewees:

"And I want to get to people before they've told their story. The worst oral histories I've ever been a part of were where somebody said, ‘Oh, you got to hear their stories. They're just great.' Well, they're—they're stories they've told so many times that they're boilerplate. I want to get to the people who don't want to talk, who haven't talked, who didn't even know they should have talked. (laughs) Those are the people I want to get because their voices aren't going to be heard otherwise, you know. I mean, I like the challenge. I like the fact, well, my research shows you're the person to talk to. And you may be reluctant, but we're going to get there together, you know."

While a graduate student at the University of Texas, Tom Charlton learned that approaching prominent public figures has its challenges as well, when he attempted to interview former governor Allan Shivers for his master's thesis:

"I was ushered into Shivers's office. And he came from around his desk, and I had my notes with me in my left hand and my recorder in my right hand. And he said something to the effect, ‘So you're the young man who wants to talk to me about the Department of Public Safety.' I said, ‘Yes, Governor.' And he saw that I had something in my hand, and he said, ‘Well, I don't know if I can tell you very much. He said—he guessed that I had some notes. He said, ‘Let me see what you have there, boy.'

"And so he took the notes out of my hand that I had, and he said, ‘Let's see, the first thing you're going to ask me about, I don't remember much about that. The second thing, I don't think we have time to go into that today. The third thing is—you don't want to hear about all that. That's not very interesting. The fourth thing'—and he went right down my interview outline and just blew me out of the water completely. And he said, ‘I suppose that's about all.' Said, ‘Mr. Charlton, thank you for coming by.' And he shook hands with me and ushered me out the door."

Although disastrous, that interview proved to be a learning experience for Charlton, who stayed the course, developed a deep love for oral history, and in 1970 became the first director of the Institute for Oral History at Baylor.

Living Stories is heard on 103 point 3 FM Waco, NPR. For full transcripts of the interviews featured in this segment, or for more information about the Institute for Oral History, visit baylor.edu/livingstories.

Search our collection of full transcripts available electronically.