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Release: June 29, 2000

University Oral History Project preserves UI's bygone eras

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Portions of the University of Iowa's history is being digitally preserved in a unique oral history project, which includes descriptive stories from some of the UI's most well-recognized figures, among them a former UI president, and former and current administrators.

The University Oral History Project began in 1976 by then graduate student James Beilman, who set out to preserve perceptions about, as well as the facts surrounding, events and changes in the life of the UI. The collection includes conversations with former UI President Willard (Sandy) Boyd; Susan Hancher, wife of former UI president Virgil Hancher; and Philip Hubbard, former administrator and professor emeritus, College of Engineering. Among the many other former and current long-time UI employees interviewed by Linda Yanney, oral historian, are Samuel Becker, professor emeritus of communications studies; Mary Jo Small, former UI administrator; Wallace Tomasini, professor, and former director of the School of Art and Art History; and Ted Wheeler, former UI track coach.

Funding for the project has been intermittent, but thanks to a private donation and a matching donation from the UI Foundation, Yanney, of the Libraries special collections department, was able to resume interviews in 1999. The project is currently funded through December. Since last year Yanney has added 37 interviews to the 46 conducted by Beilman.

Although there are well-documented stories about the UI's history and civil unrest here during the Vietnam War, none capture the tenor of the times at the UI like the oral recordings, Yanney says.

In an interview recorded sometime earlier with Professor Emeritus Robert Engel, Hubbard told heartbreaking and warming stories about what it was like to be a black professor at the UI during the 1940s, and about changes since. Yanney transcribed and edited that interview.

Susan Boyd, wife of Sandy Boyd, recounted that life for the families of UI administrators was strained as anti-war sentiment grew. She reminisced about student-led demonstrations, which at times became so frequent and disorderly that some administrators were forced to move their families from their homes.

Bill Decker, associate vice president for research and former director, Information Technology Services, told about his beginnings at the UI, which as a youngster included trips to the UI band camp, then later his experiences as a band member. Included in his interview are anecdotes about the largely unnoticed camaraderie between the band and football team.

Susan Mask, director of Affirmative Action, exhibits professionalism similar in some ways to Hubbard, Yanney says.

Each, she says, is committed to raising understanding among all of the people at the UI, and to facilitating without dismissing others' points of view.

Yanney says her goal is to complete 60 interviews, but she says there's no way to really complete the project since the UI's history will continue to unfold. She says she found in the Libraries' sound archive some 23 earlier cassette tapes that are now being brought up to archival quality.

When the 60 interviews are completed, however, they will be transcribed and preserved in a format that she is hopeful will be accessible to researchers and for general interest use in the future. She says there's no way to know what the multimedia environment will be like some decades from now, but said she believes the tape recordings will continue to be used, even in the current era of digital recordings. For that reason, two preserved digital and tape formats will exist and be housed in Special Collections.

For more information about the project, visit the Oral History Project Web site at or contact Linda Yanney at (319) 335-5921.