Oral History Program Tells Mason’s Story Through the People Who Lived It

Posted: August 9, 2012 at 3:25 pm, Last Updated: August 21, 2012 at 8:56 am

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By Colleen N. Wilson

Misha Griffith, oral historian, and Bob Vay, digital collections and exhibitions archivist for University Libraries, have the responsibility of interviewing and recording subjects for the Special Collections and Archives Oral History Program. Photo courtesy of University Libraries

During the fall of 2010, three graduates of George Mason College sat in a Fenwick Library conference room and spoke for more than two hours about life at Mason in the late 1960s.

Though there were two interviewers present, they hardly had to speak, as the discussion flowed effortlessly among the three close friends. The interviewers listened intently as Mason’s history sprang to life through the memories of former Student Government president James Corrigan, BIS Computer User Interfaces ’81, and former Broadside editors Rod Burfield and David Ritchey, BA Sociology and Anthropology ’72 and MPA ’95. They spoke about friends, faculty and then-university president Lorin A. Thompson.

The interview was conducted as part of University Libraries Special Collections and Archives (SC&A) Oral History Program. Today, Misha Griffith is the university’s oral historian, and she works in collaboration with Bob Vay, digital collections and exhibitions archivist, to preserve and record the university’s history by collecting interviews with persons who have participated in that history.

SC&A started the oral history program in 1999 to add richness to its collections of historical records, photographs and media pertaining to the university. Since then, the program has conducted nearly 200 interviews with members of the Mason community: faculty, staff, students, alumni and friends of the university.  These interviews elicited details about the creation, development and growth of George Mason University throughout the past 50 years.

“The initial vision was that since the university was still so young in the late 1990s, we were in a position to talk to the people who actually built and developed the university,” says Vay. “Some of our interviews are with people who were involved with Mason as early as the 1950s.”

In the beginning, the program conducted interviews with faculty and staff who had worked at the university for 20 years or more. Since then, the project has sought out and interviewed subjects who have been involved with specific eras, programs, buildings or other individuals of historical importance to the Mason community.

Noteworthy interviewees include Mason’s first Nobel Prize winner, James M. Buchanan; the members of the 2006 Final Four men’s basketball team; and five of Mason’s six presidents (presumably, President Ángel Cabrera will be interviewed at some point).

The earliest Mason faculty member interviewed for the project was a math professor who taught in the 1950s at Mason’s Bailey’s Crossroads campus, one of the first classroom locations before the Fairfax Campus was built in 1964.

“We try to keep the project thematic each year,” says Vay. “Last year, we focused on administrators who had worked with Dr. (Alan) Merten in recognition of his retirement.  In prior years, we sought out notable faculty, alumni and Northern Virginia leaders who have had a bearing on Mason’s development.”

Each year, the program conducts about 20 hour-long interviews, which are edited, made into DVDs for researcher use, and housed in SC&A. These days, Griffith conducts the interviews, while Vay runs the video equipment. The collection contains some audio-only interviews and some video interviews.

“An oral history interview is very different from a journalistic interview,” says Griffith. “We are interested in recording the memories of people who experienced an era or an event. It’s always subjective; we have to realize that sometimes a person’s recollection might not be so good. But sometimes it is, and they help tell a story that documents and photographs simply cannot.”

One of Griffith’s favorite interviews was with Mason alumnus Stephen Neal, BS Business Administration ’78, who played basketball for Mason from 1974 to 1978 and then went on to become the president of a successful local company.

“He told us all about what Mason was really like in the ’70s,” says Griffith. “These interviews allow us to record more than just the linear narrative of history; we are able to capture the personal accounts.”

Researchers may access the collection by visiting SC&A in Fenwick Library. For more information about the oral history project, email SC&A at speccoll@gmu.edu.

Write to Robin Herron at rherron@gmu.edu

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