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LOCAL HERO

He Took the Job, and the Rest Is History

September 19, 1996|LIBBY SLATE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Doyce B. Nunis Jr. signed on as volunteer editor of the scholarly journal published by the Historical Society of Southern California, he told the society's board members they had his standing resignation should they not care for his work.

That was in 1962. Thirty-four years later, Nunis, 72, is still editor of the Southern California Quarterly, having presided over nearly 150 issues while pursuing an academic career that saw him rise from assistant research historian and assistant professor of history and education at UCLA to a full professor of history at USC, where he taught the history of California, history of the American West, U.S. constitutional history and history of medicine before retiring in 1989.

"I'd never edited a thing in my life," he explains now of his resignation offer. "I thought maybe I'd do it for a couple of years, as a fill-in."

Nunis started from scratch as the previous editor had walked off with the backlog of articles. His unpaid duties include handling correspondence, reading the mostly unsolicited manuscripts averaging 30 to 40 pages, deciding which should be published, sending those he believes have merit to an expert for further review, editing the articles and assigning and editing book reviews. After accepting an article, he acquires appropriate photos for illustration and oversees the various technical steps en route to publication. He has worked without an assistant since 1965.

"Since I've been editor, we do not put a space limit on articles--the important thing is to serve the cause of history," Nunis says, seated in the sunny breakfast room of his Los Feliz home, where shelves holding 150 cookbooks attest to his other passion. "We look for anything that relates to the history of California, preferably Southern California."

Articles in this year's two issues cover such topics as "The Jews of Boyle Heights, 1900-1950," "Cesar Estrada Chavez: The Final Struggle" and a profile of Mary Foy, city librarian from 1880 to 1884. "It's a smorgasbord," Nunis says.

Nunis spends at least six weeks of eight-hour days in his basement library working on each issue of the journal. Though his home's Spanish style befits a man who last year was honored by King Juan Carlos I of Spain for his contributions to study of the history of Baja California, he says he bought the house because of that huge subterranean room. He used the money earned from his five USC distinguished teaching awards to help furnish it.

About 5,000 volumes line the walls and interior cases, among them the 59 books that Nunis has written or edited. The quarterly materials take up a large desk.

"An article must have something to say that is new, make a new contribution to our knowledge," Nunis says of the journal, whose subscribers include the Historical Society's 1,000 members and the libraries of universities and other institutions nationwide. "Lenin said, 'People without a past have no future.' History is like an artist standing before a canvas--every little bit you fill in helps, every article fits into the mosaic eventually."

Historical Society of Southern California Executive Director Thomas Andrews still considers Nunis his mentor years after he was Nunis' doctoral student at USC.

"Historical societies are sometimes accused of being antiquarian or nostalgic about the past," he says. "What Doyce Nunis has done for us is to keep us in the mainstream of historical scholarship. He's stayed current with themes.

"When we were students, he showed us how to make connections, how the present is connected with the past and how different aspects of the past are connected with each other. Much of the society's activity, our publications, programs, outreach to children, have been shaped by that philosophy."

"The work Doyce has done is so extensive, so generous," says Gloria Ricci Lothrop, W.P. Whitsett professor of California history at Cal State Northridge, who was also a Nunis doctoral student and has contributed articles and reviews to the quarterly. "There is no other organ that addresses the accumulation of historical records and narratives of Southern California. Not only has he published senior scholars, but he has also nurtured new scholars, honing their research and writing skills."

Nunis plans to continue as editor of the quarterly for another five years. He also advises authors of other projects, helps booksellers locate book collections and has been instrumental in establishing various Friends of the Library programs.

Most of his activities go, as Andrews says, "without notice, without pay. This is a servant of history."

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