Gainesville Ramblings

This is a blog, and thus it barely qualifies as writing, let alone formal writing, so I'd not let it bother you.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Oral History

A pretty good article in the Gainesville Sun on my favorite UF program. I'm quoted pretty well too, so I thought I'd throw it on this:

There must be hundreds of stories inside Julian Pleasants' head, and he delivers them with a passion that's only slightly tempered by his distinctive southern drawl.

Pleasants, a University of Florida professor of history, has spent the past decade collecting the spoken memories of Floridians.

Some of Pleasants' interview subjects have been governors and influential judges. Others, like Depression-era laborers, may be less prominent in the history books but have proven fascinating to Pleasants in their own right.

Everyone, he says, has a story worth telling.

"We realize that a lot of people in the state of Florida have incredible stories to tell. And if we don't get those stories before they pass away it's lost and it's gone and it can't be retrieved," said Pleasants, who will step down as director of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at UF next year. "As someone once told me, when an old man dies,
a library burns."

Now heading into retirement at UF, 67-year-old Pleasants has pulled together the story of the university he's served for the last 37 years. In his new book, "Gator Tales: An Oral History of the University of Florida," Pleasants sets out to document the history of what became the state's largest university and one of the nation's biggest as well. The aptly timed book arrives with UF celebrating 100 years on its Gainesville campus.

Partly told from the point of view of past UF presidents and sports greats, "Gator Tales" covers
everything from the comical - the great panty raid of 1952 - to the terrifying - the student murders of 1990.

The taped and transcribed interviews printed in "Gator Tales," which hit local bookstores and this month, are among some 4,000 collected by the program since 1967 when it was founded by the late Samuel Proctor.

Supporters of the program say it's an essential tool in gathering the history of the state, and the project is working to digitize its massive library to make it more available to the public. In addition, the program is slated to have offices in the new Graham Center for Public Service at Pugh Hall, which is scheduled for completion in November, according to UF's Web site.

But efforts to stem the debt in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, which is proposing cuts to programs and staff, may compromise the future of the program, Pleasants says. The program's budget is set to shrink this year by 62 percent, and Pleasants says he won't take on any new projects given the uncertainty of the program's future.

"That (cut) means there's really not enough money to pay the staff," he said.

Matt McKenzie, a UF graduate who interned with the project, said he was disappointed to hear that the program was being scaled back. McKenzie conducted interviews on the current state of race relations in St. Augustine for the project, and said it's the kind of work that allows people to tell their stories who might not otherwise have the opportunity. "History isn't always the stories of generals, presidents and kings," he said. "It's more of the story of everyday, normal people who don't get to have their stories heard. To take the chance away from them to have have their stories heard is a shame."

There are plenty of legends, however, that appear in the annals of the oral history program, and football heroes are among those who get their share of ink in "Gator Tales."

"Of course we have a lot on Florida football," Pleasants said with a bit of a smirk. "We have to include that ... Perhaps for most people, the most interesting comments were about Steve Spurrier, naturally."

In interviews with Ray Graves, UF's football coach in the 1960s, Spurrier is painted with a familiar brush as a mastermind of the game and a take-charge quarterback. But the most intimate portrait of the former UF coach may came from John Lombardi, who was UF's president during Spurrier's tenure.

"Since he wants to win so bad, he won't tolerate cheating," Lombardi said of Spurrier in a 2002 interview printed in "Gator Tales." "A very interesting mind-set, very interesting. He's that way when he plays golf, he's that way when he does everything. People who play golf say he's no fun to play golf with because nobody can get a gimme, nobody can move their ball, nobody can do do anything that isn't within the rules. Because then when he wins, it doesn't count. And he wants to win. ... He's a winner, but it has to be clean or it's no fun.

"That's why he used to get so angry when he thought something wasn't done fairly on the field. It was a spoiled win."

Lombardi goes on to say that Spurrier, for all of his talent, was "single-minded" and "wasn't easy to deal with." On the other hand, Lombardi says he "forgave him everything for that," and counts himself as a supporter of the coach.

Throughout Pleasants' career, he's followed a fascination with figures like Spurrier - calculating personalities who rouse strong emotions. Through exhaustive interviews, which stretch on for dozens of transcribed pages, Pleasants' body of work indicates a relentless desire to nail down seemingly insignificant details - to get it right and find out what makes people tick.

"I've always been fascinated with what motivates people," he said.

When Pleasants set out to write the history of the 2000 presidential recount, he found that there was a singular motivation shared by both political parties: winning. In interviews with 43 insiders, from attorneys to judges to journalists, Pleasants recorded the history of the controversial election in a book called "Hanging Chads." Published in 2004, the book led Pleasants to a troubling conclusion about the state of democracy in America.

"I found in many, many cases that democracy was not at the issue; it was who was going to be in power," he said. "And people didn't so much break the law as in many cases they sort of bent the rules and used coercion and used court challenges and that sort of thing, which is all fair in American politics. But I was a little (disappointed), I think, that the objective of the election was not to determine in a democratic sense who had won."

There are plenty of politicians, including governors, who've lent testimony to UF's archive in the history project since it began in 1967. But the project is far from preoccupied with politics and its sometimes seamy underbelly.

Mountains of tape have been collected on somewhat esoteric subjects, like Italian immigrants living in Ybor City, highway patrolmen and black midwives of Florida.

The project has also proven a link to major UF donors who've had their histories recorded. The UF Foundation occasionally pays the program to record the history of a prominent alumnus who may have given to the university or does so thereafter, said Paul Robell, vice president for development and alumni affairs.

"We don't use oral histories to try to get gifts out of people," he said. "But people who qualify for oral histories (are often donors)."

The program's role in recording the histories of alumni, among other Floridians, is one of the reasons people like Pleasants say it's so important to the state.

But it's the span of the subjects, collected in some 100,000 pages of transcribed interviews, that make it unique, Mckenzie said

."You get some people who lived in the swamp in the Everglades and people who are senators, presidents and governors," he said. "All of it shows humanity."


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