Telling Stories: The Fires of Wisdom Oral History Project 

A look back at the efforts to record authentic, first-hand accounts of Mills history.

No comments

By Moya Stone, MFA ’03 

With voices full and mighty for generations still. 

“The Fires of Wisdom,” Mills College hymn

Storytelling is a time-honored tradition that  builds community. As Mills College alums, we each hold onto our own memories; when we share them, we connect and strengthen our bond. This is something that the women behind the Fires of Wisdom Oral History Project have long understood. 

The Fires of Wisdom Oral History Project was a volunteer-driven endeavor that started in the 1990s,  took more than 10 years to complete, and resulted  in approximately 23 recorded and transcribed  interviews with alumnae who graduated from Mills  between 1913 and 1944. It was a lot of work and “a  labor of love,” says Suzette Lalime Davidson ’94, one  of the project’s co-founders.  

The late Willa Baum, MA ’50, director of UC Berkeley’s Regional Oral History Office from 1989  to 2001, once defined oral history as follows: “The  tape recording of reminiscences about which the  narrator can speak from firsthand knowledge. Through pre-planned interviews, the information is captured in question-and-answer form by oral history interviewers.”  

Though the original project did come to a stopping point, there is now renewed interest in picking it back up again to document the recollections of more recent alumnae in the years to come. 

The Spark  

Long before the project started, Davidson entertained the idea of conducting an oral history just to  learn more about her family, who “told good stories,”  she says. She started working on her interviewing  skills while a student at the University of Maine and  improving on them when she transferred to San  Francisco State. Finally, after arriving at Mills in the  early 1990s, she followed the suggestion of Professor  of American History Marianne Sheldon to speak  with the AAMC about recording oral histories with  alumnae. That’s where Davidson joined forces with  Penny Peak ’82, who—as a member of the Board of  Governors (BOG)—had already launched the project with Katie Brown Sanborn ’83.

 It turned out to be a perfect pairing. Along with an interest in history, Peak brought to the table an  extensive knowledge of conducting oral histories after working on one with Oakland dancer Ruth Beckford for the San Francisco Performing Arts Museum. “The  training I had,” Peak explains, “allowed me to ask smart questions and relate information to historical events.” As Davidson and Peak discussed the possibilities, the purpose of the project became clear. As stated in the project’s information letter, it was “to capture the  history and traditions of Mills through stories of the College’s older alumnae.” Ultimately, the plan was to make the oral histories available in F.W. Olin Library.  

The co-founders got to work creating an instruction manual and holding training workshops for volunteer interviewers, building on their own  knowledge and experience, and relying on the many  books written on the subject. The Fires of Wisdom Oral History Project, named after the College hymn, officially launched in September 1993.  

The Flames 

Interviewers were recruited through flyers circulated around campus. Volunteers soon started signing up, and a committee was formed. Davidson and Peak say that over the course of the project, they and their compatriots worked with close to 30 volunteers, including mostly alumnae—but students as well—and one staff member (who would be  this writer, then a library specialist in acquisitions). The co-founders were impressed with the interest and dedication of the volunteers. “It was a great group of women to work  with,” Peak says.  

Volunteer Cecille Caterson, MA ’90, was also on the BOG and specifically recalls taking the interview training workshop, where the main emphasis was that the interviewer should be the facilitator in the exchange, not the focus: “The most important  thing to remember is that you are not having dinner or tea.” Caterson says that interviewing definitely requires skills that take practice, but they’re worth  the effort as she uses what she learned to this day as a volunteer for other organizations.  

The Fires of Wisdom Committee in 1996. Left to right: Suzette Lalime Davidson ’94; Betsy McCall ’88; Beth Woolbright ’85; Cecille Caterson, MA ’90; Erika Young ’94; and Penny Peak ’82.
The Fires of Wisdom Committee in 2011. Left to right: Moya Stone, MFA ’03; Young; McCall; Woolbright; Jane Cudlip King ’42; Caterson; Kathleen McCrea ’81; Davidson.

The AAMC was a sponsor of the project and helped compile a list of potential interviewees, called  “Narrators,” and starting in 1993—and for several  years after—many of the interviews were conducted  at Reunion. “We made every effort to locate and  interview alumnae of color and those with diverse economic and cultural backgrounds,” Davidson says. The questions posed to each narrator were along the same lines: Why did you choose Mills? What was the campus like at that time? What were some of the challenges you faced as a student? 

Stories were gathered that delved into the rich  and varied backgrounds of alumnae such as the late Ida Shimanouchi ’38, who was among the first narrators. According to Davidson, though the Japanese American Shimanouchi graduated before World War  II, former President Aurelia Henry Reinhardt—who  was known for aiding many people affected by the  war “for as long as she could,” Davidson says—helped  keep Shimanouchi out of the internment camps.  

Typical memories included gathering in the  Student Union every December to hear Reinhardt  reading A Christmas Carol; sitting around the pool  talking to members of the Budapest String Quartet  while they were on a US tour; and the early morning initiation of new students at The Oval, which  involved buckets of water and rattling chains. Constance Ong (a.k.a. Jade Snow Wong) ’42 spoke a  lot about Reinhardt, who was a presence in many of  the stories. “We were struck by what a huge influence she had, and she was beloved, even though many were intimidated by her,” Davidson says.  

Narrators discussed the Depression years at Mills and campus traditions, as well as personal experiences. Caterson remembers a lot of talk about taking the ferry and the train to San Francisco to attend tea dances at the St. Francis Hotel. Some of the narrators laughingly admitted to visiting a nearby roadhouse.  

The committee wanted to make available both the original interviews on tape and written versions to read. After a few years, when all the interviews were completed, the next step was to transcribe the tapes. “That was a real bear,” Caterson says. Transcribing at that time was a laborious process of listening to cassette tapes, which were often poor quality, and typing up the narratives. It took a long time to get  it all done, and by then, volunteers had been pulled away by other commitments. Since the interviews were not ready to hand over to the library, everything was packed into boxes, and Davidson was charged with housing them. 

Rekindling the Embers

Over the years, Davidson says the project has taken on a life of its own and expanded in unexpected ways. In 1996, the AAMC asked the committee to stage a dramatic reading at Reunion. Six or so volunteers gathered in the Student Union and read for an audience of alums quotes and excerpts from the narratives while a slide show of Mills photos ran behind them. “An important part of the presentation,” Caterson says, “was that we all dressed in vintage clothing.” Among the readers was Jane Cudlip King  ’42, who, according to Davidson, did a convincing impression of Reinhardt “with all her elocutionary skills.” These readings continued at every Reunion for several years.  

Something else that developed beyond the project was an annual tea. Inspired by the narrators’ stories of having tea, the committee began a tradition of inviting volunteers to tea every December, first at the St. Francis Hotel and later at other locations, as a  thank-you gesture. Now nearly 30 years later, a small number of the original group of volunteers keep up  that tradition and still gather for tea, although—since the pandemic—they bring their own teacups and meet on Zoom, usually donning vintage hats.

The tapes did eventually find their way into a spot where they became accessible to others. After so much time and effort, it was a happy turn of events  when the transcripts finally landed in the library. In 2006, Davidson met with Nancy MacKay, then a librarian at F.W. Olin Library and one of the individuals in charge of the newly developed Oakland Living History Program (see previous page). MacKay agreed to take the Fires of Wisdom Oral History Project through the finish line. She oversaw the transfer of the narratives from cassette tapes to CDs (the technology of the time); organized all the necessary paperwork; and catalogued each oral history into the library collection. Though some of the interviews could not be added due to incomplete paperwork (including an interview with the oldest alumna who participated, Maude Ross Sardam’13), there are now 13 Fires of Wisdom Oral Histories on the shelves in the Olin Library, with some individual interviews that included more than one alumna. 

Since the transition of Mills College to Mills College at Northeastern University, there’s been an increased interest among alumnae in campus history. Earlier this year, the Los Angeles Mills Club invited Davidson to give a presentation about the Fires of Wisdom Oral History Project, and AAMC Operations Manager Lila Goehring ’21—along with other alums—is looking into making the current collection of oral histories available online. There is also interest in rekindling the Fires of Wisdom Project, starting with alumnae of the 1950s. Because, as Goehring says, “It’s a way of holding on to the history we have.” ◑