Tom Brigham, the executive secretary of WSU’s Emeritus Society, stopped by the magazine office some time ago with a box full of interview transcripts, the results of one of the society’s major projects. Had I known how absorbing and distracting the contents would be, I might have been more hesitant to accept delivery.

Seriously, the oral histories contained in the box provide absorbing recollections of WSU history from the early 1950s on. At their best, the interviews combine engrossing storytelling and striking insight. Conducted and transcribed by history graduate student, now instructor, Katy Fry ’06, ’11, the histories provide unfiltered memories of WSU through five presidencies and rich insight into how we came to be where we are now.

Tom Brigham with Katy Fry and Herb Nakata at WSU
Emeritus Society executive secretary Tom Brigham (center) with Katy Fry and Herb Nakata. (Robert Hubner)

I met agricultural economist Norm Whittlesey (at WSU 1964–1996) soon after I started at WSU in 1989 and interviewed him a time or two before he retired. I admired his work on water policy and knew that he was associated with some considerable controversy regarding water. But I was never clear on the details. Now I know, thanks to his lively and candid oral history.

The Grand Coulee Dam and the Columbia Basin Project was originally planned as purely an irrigation project. Half of it was funded by Congress. Power generation was added later in the planning. Decades after the dam’s completion, the plans for the second portion of the irrigation project were resurrected, and Whittlesey was asked to analyze its worth. Much to the dismay of a determined interest group, he testified before the House of Representatives that the project was in fact not worth the cost.

Whittlesey learned the dangers of being forthright and recounts a not-so-surprising but still troubling conversation with an unnamed legislator about truth and accountability. He also muses that the results of his testimony changed his opinion of tenure.

David Seamans, who joined the electrical engineering faculty in 1954 (and retired in 1992), remembers a campus that had one computer, an IBM punch-card machine in Thompson Hall, the administration building at the time. He taught the first computer hardware course on campus, in 1956 or 1957 and, with William Grant in music, built an analog music synthesizer.

Although Sue Durrant’s (at WSU 1961–2005) story about her role in forcing WSU to follow Title IX guidelines has been told many times, including in this magazine, never have we heard such a personal and moving account of what it was like to have to sue her university to rectify an unbalanced athletic system.

Not only does biochemist Ralph Yount (Molecular Biosciences, 1960–2004) recount his discovery of an ATP analog that is used widely in biochemical research, he shares his thoughts about the relationship between scientists and their mothers.

Zoologist Leonard Kirschner (1953–1993) provides an irreverent but touching picture of 1950s Pullman, an absorbing account of his career in biological science, and a hilarious description of campus unrest in the late 1960s and early 1970s and his part in it, including his firing by President Terrell from the Human Rights Committee.

Others interviewed for the project include James Quann (Registrar, at WSU 1957–1990), Robert Ackerman (Anthropology, 1961–2007), Don Orlich (Education, 1967–1993), George Hinman (School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, 1969–1997), James Short (Sociology, 1951–1993), Walt Butcher (School of Economic Sciences, 1964–1996), Thomas Maloney (Composite Materials and Engineering, 1956–1995), Sherrill Richarz (Human Development, 1968–1993), Thor Swanson (Political Science, 1951–1982), Herb Nakata (Molecular Biosciences, 1959–1993), Nicholas Kiessling (English, 1967–2000), and Edward Bennett (History, 1961–1994).

The oral histories are generally insightful, often funny, occasionally mis-remembered, and unflinchingly candid. As such, members of the society have decided not to make the interviews available online at this time. However, transcripts are available at Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections, and selections are posted at Our Story.

Web extra

Oral histories of WSU faculty (Our Story)