Comrades of the Quest is drawn extensively (though not exclusively) from Reed’s Oral History Project (OHP), launched in 1998 as a way to create a community history of Reed’s first 100 years. The project interviewed 352 alumni and 45 professors, administrators, and staff, transcribed 19 legacy interviews held in the archives, and held 46 storytelling sessions at Reunions, with approximately 594 participants. All this work was performed by 127 valiant volunteers.
One aspect of history that is seldom included in history is the tricky business of obtaining it. We asked Reed’s master storyteller, Cricket Parmalee ’67, to share some episodes from this epic project.
As the D.C. coordinator for the OHP, I dispatched Sarah Murphy ’93 to interview Christian Freer ’36 in Arlington. But after parking near his high-rise building and unloading her equipment, she realized she had locked her keys in the car. AAA said they would come in an hour, but she had to be waiting by the car. Though nearly 90, Christian, a gentleman of the old school, offered to wait with her. (I should add that two years later, he was still a world traveler.)
Sarah had been forewarned by our training manual that people often feel awkward about repeating a story for the tape, so she wanted to forestall him from saying anything of interest. This was her first interview, and she didn’t feel comfortable explaining this, so she proceeded to prevent him from talking about himself by talking about herself. For an hour.
Christian thus did not provide the most riveting ending to an interview I ever heard. After two hours of his speaking about his life and time at Reed, Sarah thanked him. And as she leaned forward to turn off the tape, he said, “Now . . . tell me about yourself.”
Alan Dean ’41, who was a trustee and an important figure in federal government, mentioned to his interviewer, Tchad Moore ’92, that he had memorized “great chunks” of Goethe, which he could still recite. Tchad invited him to do so, which explains why his interview includes 14 sparkling lines of Faust—in the original German.
Richard Conviser ’65 interviewed Will Sibley ’51 at his home near Annapolis, where he repairs sailboats. After graduating, Will wound up as an anthropologist, but he’d always been a good mechanic and loved to tinker. In fact, this perspective seemed to permeate his experience of Reed. Asked about President E.B. MacNaughton, he remembered Mr. Mac “as an interesting and brash person who had a very heavily dented car. I don’t know what was the matter with his eyesight, but I think he frequently inflicted his car on things.” Which demonstrates the value of oral history: the glimpse of someone you wouldn’t have gotten from anyone else.
Cecelia Gunterman Wollman ’37, known as Tete, was my first interview. I was nonchalant. I did not foresee that after two hours I would feel like a member of Tete’s family—and that I would be hooked on the project. Done with our work, I would send her a postcard of the Oregon coast when I went out to Portland. A few years later I had occasion to visit her again. That was when I learned that she was being treated for cancer. At 89 she was remarkably independent and was driving herself to her chemotherapy treatments. I had had a brush with cancer myself not long before, and asked her the favor of letting me drive her. “After all, Tete,” I said, “We are having a heat wave.” Afterwards we went to her favorite coffee shop and talked for hours. At that point in her life, with so many gone, I think it was a treat for her to have a new friend. And by connecting, we were fulfilling the project’s profoundest purpose.