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Telling La Verne’s story

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Al Clark is La Verne’s oral historian

by Kat Simonelli
photography by Sarah VanderZon

  Al Clark, humanities professor, stands at the entrance to the University of La Verne archives where he learns more about La Verne’s history. Al is compiling an oral history project to document personal stories that supplement the history of the University. / photo by Sarah Vander Zon

Al Clark, humanities professor, stands at the entrance to the University of La Verne archives where he learns more about La Verne’s history. Al is compiling an oral history project to document personal stories that supplement the history of the University. / photo by Sarah VanderZon

He is the story recorder of La Verne, gathering memories, memoirs and anecdotes of La Verne’s past greats in order to preserve the history of the University of La Verne. For Al Clark, University of La Verne professor of humanities, this is a personal mission of historical urgency.

After receiving a Samsung tablet Father’s Day June 2013, Al was inspired to set out on a personal research endeavor to record oral histories of as many key University of La Verne people as possible. His recordings started January 2014 with Gordon Whitby, former Trustee. Since, his ongoing project grew tremendously summer 2015, as he managed to record 40-50 interviews, sometimes recording three interviews a day. Al is himself a subject for historical recording, having first started at La Verne in 1976 as a history teacher and then became a full-time administrator in 1978 with growing responsibility that led to his title of associate vice president. All the while, he taught humanities classes, including provided leadership in the Study Abroad Program and offered subject classes and honors colloquium courses.

Al says he became interested in 1968 in oral history projects when he undertook his senior project at Cal Poly, Pomona. His project, “The War Over the San Gabriel” combined two of his passions: water and oral history. To discover information on how water impacted the San Gabriel Valley, he interviewed water project engineers.

In the present, he is fighting against time. The University is quickly losing key historical leaders; Al is trying to record as many stories as he can before it is too late. “There were so many important La Verne people who were passing away, and I thought to myself, ‘You know, we really should have gotten Ortmayer [emeritus coach] to talk about his life; we really should have captured Dwight Hanawalt [emeritus coach], Ernie Ikenberry [emeritus chemistry professor], Robert Rodriguez [first head of security and long-time La Verne City Council member].’ Those missed opportunities inspired me to work with La Verne.” Despite his regrets, at publication date, Al has interviewed 82 alumni, 69 faculty and emeriti, 39 staff or former staff members, eight trustees, 16 athletic hall of fame members, 12 SCE/RCA/ROC emeriti, two American Armenian International College representatives and two pastors from the La Verne Church of the Brethren, who were closely associated with the University. He is still going at it. “I don’t know when I’m going to be done with it. I suppose like everything else, I may tire of it, or I might get too old to work on it, but at the present time, I don’t really see an end to it, because I think it would be interesting to have hundreds of interviews of people associated with the institution. There are many institutions that collect interviews of famous alumni, but those have already been done; but to have, if you will, average, normal people who just remember what it was like to be a student, what it was like to be a teacher, what it was like when certain buildings were being built, or how we did certain things in sports—to get that kind of normal activity on recording is something I think that is important to record.”

Al shows up at his interviews with his Samsung tablet, a consent document and not much else. He is not a slave to external microphones or tripods. He explains he used to go into interviews with loads of questions, thinking he could best guess what his subjects’ most interesting stories were, but he soon realized there is no way to stage anything when recording oral history; only the stories that people want to tell are important. “It’s been an exciting kind of experience, because I think people like to talk about things that they’re interested in. People tell you what’s important to them, not what I think is important, or what I thought a priori was important, but what’s important to them. And what’s important to them is important to history.”

Al says history books cannot record every small detail, and so many personal anecdotes and memories are lost. “One of the great things about this project is that it is full of really great stories.” Al, along with Bryan Best, assistant director of instructional technology,  and Honors Program students, will produce a series of documentaries to be screened every Monday evening during the 2016-2017 academic year in the President’s Dining Room. He plans to assemble a pamphlet that features 125 stories for the 125th anniversary. Each page will present a different story. It is his hope that this oral history project will last the test of time in the archives in the Wilson Library as well as on the server in the Honors Center.

Al Clark records an interview with Wendy Lau on Oct. 5, 2015, for his oral history project. Wendy is an attorney and also a member of the senior counsel for the University of La Verne Board of Trustees. She shares her experiences from when she attended the University of La Verne and talks about being in the sorority Phi Sigma Sigma, which she says has helped with her career and her position on the Board. / photo by Sarah Vander Zon

Al Clark records an interview with Wendy Lau on Oct. 5, 2015, for his oral history project. Wendy is an attorney and also a member of the senior counsel for the University of La Verne Board of Trustees. She shares her experiences from when she attended the University of La Verne and talks about being in the sorority Phi Sigma Sigma, which she says has helped with her career and her position on the Board. / photo by Sarah VanderZon

Memories from the past that shaped La Verne’s future

Chuck Davis: President’s son, alumnus

“What was interesting about the Chuck Davis interview was that when he attended La Verne College so much was left to the students to devise themselves,” says Al Clark, professor of humanities. “Administration would say, ‘OK, you want to have a Campus Times? Figure out how to pay for it, figure out how to print it, figure out how to get advertising for it, and we’ll be happy to look at the copy when it’s finished.’”

Into this environment, Charles (Chuck) Davis started his freshman year at La Verne fall 1941, two years after his father Charles Ernest Davis was inaugurated as the 12th president. Chuck remembers gaining a printing press his freshman year. Classmate Candelario Mendoza, a senior, knew of a Chandler and Price 10 x 15 clamshell press not in use at Pomona High School. He managed to acquire it and place it in Founders Hall basement. “I had been interested in printing before because my dad had bought a little printing press, and I knew a little bit about it,” Chuck says. The next year, Chuck was elected commissioner of publications, charged with negotiating the yearbook contract plus being responsible to bring in advertising to pay for the cost of getting the newspaper printed. “You had advisers, but they didn’t know anything about printing. They knew a little something about English, but I don’t think they really had that much experience in journalism, so you pretty much did what you thought you needed to do.” For his junior year, Chuck was named the editor of the Campus Times and the yearbook. He recalls that he knew who was going to enroll at the college since his father was president and took advantage of that by previewing applications to see who had journalism experience. He then recruited new students as they enrolled.

Chuck was drafted into World War II spring 1943 as a conscientious objector and was stationed at a civilian public service camp in Waldport, Oregon, where he planted trees along the West Coast. He continued his passion for printing and brought a small printing press with him. Among the many newsletters he wrote, he also printed a small booklet full of poems. He recalls that they would sell his booklets for about 25 cents. He chuckles as he explains that he recently sold one of his old booklets for $165.

Chuck returned to La Verne College in 1946 and graduated in 1948, the same year his father retired as president. Chuck worked as a printer and taught printing management at Los Angeles Trade Technical College, retiring in 1984 after 27 years. Following, for nine years, he owned and operated Windsor Graphics. He has always held an avocation toward clock collecting and repair.

Daryl Brandt: Orange grower, alumnus

Daryl Brandt’s father Jesse C. Brandt is the man for whom Brandt Residence Hall is named. Jesse held many distinguished positions at the University for nearly 40 years, including teaching physics and mathematics, serving as an administrator and leading on the Board of Trustees. While serving at the College, he farmed a 30 acre citrus ranch to supplement his income for his family, which held six children. Daryl’s recalls working alongside his father in the groves. Each winter, they would “smudge” to keep the fruit from freezing. Smudging consisted of lighting oil in an apparatus so that it would burn and warm the air around the trees. It was a dirty proposition. “We had some freezes in ‘39 when I was young that the smudge was so thick that the sidewalks were black, and when you walked you could see your footprints, and all the houses were full of soot.” Daryl worked in the citrus groves while a La Verne College student. He remembers a time during World War II when German prisoners of war, detained at the L.A. County Fairgrounds, would come in as a crew to pick the citrus. During a particularly rainy month, they had to bring a load of citrus out of the grove and up to the packing house. “The truck was loaded, and it sank in the mud clear down to the hubcaps. We didn’t know how we were going to get it out of there. The German prisoners said, ‘Oh, no problem,’ and they called the whole crew over, and they pushed the truck right up onto the road. They said that’s what they had to do with tanks when they were in the war. That was quite an unusual experience,” Daryl says.

Robert Neher: scientist, teacher

Robert “Bob” Neher served on the La Verne City Council, in addition to leading as interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, interim provost and biology division head for 50 plus years at the University of La Verne. His rich trove of memories includes cleaning the cage of a reticulated python with biology faculty member Harvey Good, when it bit Harvey then coiled around him. “We both survived, but he’s still got teeth in his arm from the snake bite,” Bob says.

He recalls a student who was not doing well in his biology class. The student saw him after failing a test: Bob remembers telling the student that he knew he could pass the class; he just did not think he was spending the time to focus on it. “I remember saying, ‘I’ll tell you what I’ll do; I’ll give you a D if you promise not to take another biology course.’ He was doing that badly.” Several years later, Bob had a chance reunion with this student at Pacific Northwest area church. The student spoke about something that had changed his life, and he told the congregation about the time that Dr. Neher had given him a second chance and gave him a D in biology. “Little did I know he had gone on to get his advanced degree in biology and had become a rather well known teacher there,” Bob says. “I guess that was the right thing to do in his case. You never know what’s going to happen.”

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