SAN DIEGO — You could describe them as the voices of San Diego's past:
A former burlesque dancer at the Hollywood theater downtown.
Pauline DesGranges, who ran the city's Park and Recreation Department during the 1940s, '50s and '60s.
And Tom Lucas, the last of the Kwaaymii Indians from the Laguna Mountains.
Those are among about 600 people who have been interviewed as part of the San Diego Historical Society's oral history program, which aims to preserve on tape the recollections of San Diegans with a variety of experiences, income levels and ethnic backgrounds. The ongoing program provides historians as well as the public with invaluable word pictures of people and events that helped shape the city.
But the program is remarkable for other reasons, too. For one thing, all of the work--the interviewing, transcribing, editing and typing--is done by volunteers. Neither the city nor the society has spent a buck on oral history for more than 25 years.
For another, while the field of oral history is expanding rapidly, the local program is considered one of the oldest in Southern California and one of the best of its type in the nation.
"It's probably the most energetic and productive volunteer oral history program in the country," said Dale Treleven, director of UCLA's oral history program.
"A lot of it (is due) to the dynamism of Sylvia Arden," who coordinates the program for the San Diego Historical Society, Treleven said. "It's really quite remarkable what she's been able to do."
Arden is "an unusually great archivist and director of volunteers," agreed Ruth Held, who has volunteered as an interviewer for the oral history program for the past three years. "She's able to make each (volunteer) feel that he's very special, and she's also very good at seeing that everyone receives proper credit."
Arden, a tiny, 50-ish woman who prefers not to reveal her exact age, is the society's head librarian--a paid position. But her passion for oral history has led her to actively manage the program on her own since 1967.
As Arden pointed out, oral history actually got its start here 11 years before that, when the county government appropriated $5,000 annually for Edward Hastings to record interviews with pioneer residents of the San Diego area. Hastings--himself a member of a pioneer family--completed 309 interviews before he died in 1961. After that, county funding came to a halt, and local oral history languished until Arden--who began working full time in the society's library in 1966--revived it in the late 1960s.
If not for the initial work done by Hastings, Arden noted, "I wouldn't have known anything about oral history. But once I became aware of (his interviews) and saw the importance of the information that could be gleaned from people, I felt a very pressing need to do something.
"It was my gut feeling that otherwise . . . we'd lose the chance to preserve a lot of wonderful information," she said. An interview with someone who has lived or worked in the city almost always uncovers "personal viewpoints and experiences that are never included in the history books," she said.
Treleven said that though historians have traditionally relied on documents such as newspapers and public records rather than personal recollections whose veracity can sometimes be questioned, they are increasingly taking oral history seriously.
"It's only by interviewing individuals and talking to them about what went on that one is able to write a completely textured account" of historical events, he said. "Oral history provides new information . . . and adds another dimension to the historical record."
Recalled Father's Work
In other words, it often brings the everyday realities of past eras to life. Gertrude Gibbs, interviewed by Hastings in 1958, recalled that her father was an expressman in San Diego at the turn of the century:
"Anyone that would want any hauling done, or stuff taken down to the (train) depot, would come and get the expressman," she told Hastings. "There were probably 10 or 15 express wagons and horses around town in those days, and . . . they would go most anyplace in town from the depot for 50 cents."
Tom Lucas, a member of the Kwaaymii Indians who was born in the Laguna Mountains, described an Indian mourning ceremony when he talked to Richard Carrico in 1975.
Sang of Creation
"The Indians used to . . . make these images out of straw. They'd tie them up just like you would a scarecrow only a lot better done. They were so precise and they'd try to get just as true an image (of the person who had died) as they can and the face was painted on. . . .
"When that was all done, they had an all-night song that was sung of the creation and how the earth was made and what was done and what becomes of the people. Nobody dies, he simply leaves his body and is gone again. But it's . . . nobody's privilege to find out where they go."