Spring 2010 Issue

Getting It On Tape

In celebration of the 40th anniversary of the University of Illinois Springfield, alumni are collecting oral histories from fellow graduates, faculty and staff of Sangamon State University and UIS

By Shannon O’ Brien

In anticipation of the 40th anniversary of UIS, which takes place this fall, alumni have been out with voice recorders, collecting oral histories from fellow SSU/UIS graduates and former faculty.

A collection of oral histories seems like an appropriate way to pay tribute to the University, considering the method of oral history has been taught on the campus for many years. “I associate the history of SSU/UIS with the modern history of oral history, because oral history interviewing is really a phenomenon of the last 50 years,” said Cullom Davis, professor emeritus of history at UIS. Davis had his first introduction to the art of oral history by attending a meeting of the Oral History Association shortly after joining the faculty of Sangamon State University. He was inspired by the meeting and thought the method would be a good fit at SSU: “I decided that for a new university that was looking for all sorts of fresh ways of doing things, that I would look into offering a course on oral history method,” he said.

He taught the course every year for 35 years, right up until he retired, so it was only natural to request his assistance when members of the UIS SAGE Society decided to preserve the history of the University through recorded interviews with alumni, faculty and staff. “I responded with enthusiasm to the idea of doing oral histories with former students, former faculty members, former administrators as part of a body of materials on the University,” Davis said.

Davis provided training sessions to alumni who were interested in volunteering their time as interviewers. They discussed such things as interviewing technique, the importance of active listening, and how to focus in on the subject’s interests.

Bruce Strom, MA ’77 PAA, took part in the training and has conducted a few interviews for the oral history project. “I like to tell them [alumni] there’s no right or wrong answer. What we’re trying to do is build an archive of individual memories of students…that will, collectively, make a collage of what the University was about,” he said.

And alumni have been open to sharing their memories, creating an image of what life was like in the beginning years of SSU and how they felt about the transition to UIS.

Phil Zeni ’72 CBM, vice president of development for WTVP in Peoria, attended night classes at SSU to finish a degree he had started but didn’t complete. He said it would be dark as he drove out to the campus for his night classes—the site nowhere near as built up as it is today—and the area would be illuminated by automobile headlights: “There would be this great influx of cars pulling into this same place in the middle of a corn field, coming from all directions,” he laughed.

Zeni had started work on his degree at Millikin, but received a promotion that transferred him to Springfield, putting a stop to college. Once SSU opened, “I thought, this is my chance to finish my degree,” he said.

The unconventional structure of the fledgling university struck him as strange. “Having done my undergraduate work at a very conventional, traditional, small, Midwestern, private university, there was a lot of structure in terms of the course of study you had to follow, and regarding requirements for your major, and so forth. There was not nearly that kind of structure [at SSU].”

When Zeni attended SSU, he was married, had children and a fulltime job, as did many students who went there. That didn’t leave a great deal of time for socializing. During his commencement, he said he looked at all the people sitting around him and thought, “Man, there are a lot of people going to school here. I’ve never seen these people. Who are these people? Of course there were people going to school during the daytime, but for us attending at night, there weren’t many people on campus.”

Zeni was not convinced the experimental nature of SSU was what the community needed, and was pleased when it was absorbed into the University of Illinois system. “Best thing that could have happened to that crazy place,” he laughed.

Keith Miller
UIS alumna, Janice Spears at left interviews fellow alumna Jackie L. Newman for an oral history project being put together by members of the SAGE Society for the 40th anniversary of the University. Ms. Newman is the Executive Director of the Springfield Housing Authority.

Janice Spears ’73 LAS, MA ’74 LAS, MA ’81 EHS, is an alumna who has been on both sides of the digital voice recorder. She received three degrees from UIS and has had her remembrances recorded for the oral history project. In addition, she has been active interviewing alumni, and recently spoke at length with alumna Jackie L. Newman, Executive Director of the Springfield Housing Authority.

Spears remembers her time at SSU/UIS as inspiring. “There were so many new ideas thrown around and exciting people we were exposed to,” she said. She recalls visits from author, architect and inventor Buckminster Fuller, from comedian and social activist Dick Gregory, and she remembers reading literature by philosopher Ivan Illich. She said he wrote that it was time to “call a moratorium on schools, close them down, and rethink them.”

“Really revolutionary, exciting ideas being thrown around to all of us,” she said.

Spears said she was initially wary of SSU’s transition into UIS. “We were so non-traditional, and we didn’t want to become a traditional university,” she said. “But I think it’s gone extremely well.”

She attributes the successful transition to the various leaders—presidents and chancellors—that have been in charge of the University over the years. “They’ve given us more of an identity, a positive image,” she said. “Chancellor Ringeisen has done some beautiful things to make our campus so inviting.”

When Spears retired from her position as a school superintendent, she wanted to give something back to UIS. “The University changed my life. I wouldn’t have had the opportunities that I had if it had not been for SSU.”

She became a life member of the Alumni Association and a member of the SAGE Society, which led her to the oral history project. “It’s important for us to get these [histories] done because we are nearing our 40th anniversary as a university,” she said. “We want to capture as much of the history as we can.”

Drinda O’Connor ’83 LAS works for the Illinois Department of Human Services, and was brought into the oral history project by UIS alumna and former Springfield mayor, Karen Hasara. “I think it’s an excellent project,” O’Connor said. “I’m a big fan of the University.” She jumped at the opportunity to participate and said she has enjoyed the experience.

When recalling her history with the University she said, “I probably have done everything backwards in my life according to some people’s thinking.” She got married right out of high school and had children at a young age. Then she decided she wanted to go to college. “I was the first person in our family to go to college, so it was a big deal to me,” she said.

She tested out of the first two years and went straight in as a junior at the age of 30. “I didn’t know what to expect,” she said. When given the option between receiving grades or pass/fail for her classes, she chose to receive grades; she wanted to know exactly how she was doing in her courses. She says her idea of what college would be like came from the shows she saw on television, but those preconceived notions were soon dashed. “I expected professors with tweed jackets, elbow patches, and smoking a pipe,” she said. “I quickly realized it was very different from that. People cared what I thought…”

Like Spears, O’Connor says the University changed her life. Going away to college was not an option for her, so access to SSU enabled her to continue her education. “Without SSU, my life would have been very different,” she said.

After an oral history interview has been completed, the recorders are taken to Thomas J. Wood, the University’s archivist. He and his staff transcribe the interviews—a rather tedious project: They “can take quite a while to transcribe, depending on the quality of the tape,” he said. “It can take an hour to transcribe five minutes.”

Once finished, the audio and transcripts will be added to the collection of oral histories that are available online through the Brookens Library website.

Wood appreciates the alumni taking the initiative to put together such a project. “I think it’s a great idea. I think it’s rewarding for all involved,” he said. The project allows the participants to “have a nice conversation” with each other.

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