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ENID HART DOUGLASS, 1926 - 2008

Oral historian and civic leader

October 27, 2008|Valerie J. Nelson | Nelson is a Times staff writer.

Enid Hart Douglass, who was largely responsible for developing the oral history program at Claremont Graduate University and led it for more than three decades, has died. She was 81.

Douglass, a former mayor of Claremont, died Oct. 17 at a care facility in Sunnyvale, Calif., from complications stemming from Alzheimer's disease, her family said.

As a graduate student at the school in the 1950s, she studied the letters of people who founded the nation and became interested in how history is preserved.

Oral history was still a fairly new academic pursuit -- the field was founded at Columbia University in 1948 -- when Douglass joined Claremont's program a year after it was launched in 1962. She was the program's director from 1971 until she retired in 2003.

In explaining the importance of preserving spoken history, Douglass told The Times in 1986, "You're as close to the event or incident as you can be with a primary source; there's nothing closer."

In 1969, the program embarked on its first major project, interviewing missionaries who had been in China before World War II. The goal was to study how Western values had influenced China.

In the 1980s, she started recording the voices of California's recent political heritage, a project fueled by the discovery "that people weren't keeping records anymore," she said in the 1986 Times article. "We have no feeling for what went into the decision-making."

She interviewed politicians including Jerry Voorhis, who served five terms representing California in Congress before losing his seat to Richard Nixon in 1946, and Walter Stiern, dean of the state Senate when he retired in 1986.

Fearing that institutional knowledge was dying out, the president of Atlantic Richfield Co. sent Douglass to Alaska in the 1970s to interview employees. He wanted a written history that might make Arco "more human and real," according to the 2003 book "Doing Oral History."

Her interest in the founding of America led her to believe that she could bring about grass-roots change, said Paul Douglass, one of her two sons.

She was appointed to Claremont's Planning Commission and in 1978 was elected to the first of two terms on the Claremont City Council. From 1982 to 1986, Douglass served as the city's mayor.

In 1979, she helped found Claremont Heritage, an organization devoted to preserving the area's history. It was one of her many civic causes.

Enid Marie Hart was born Oct. 23, 1926, in Los Angeles and grew up in San Marino.

She was the youngest of three children of Frank Hart, who developed real estate in the Pasadena area, and his wife, the former Enid Lewis.

Her brother John Hart portrayed the Lone Ranger for a season on the TV series in the early 1950s. Her other brother, Frank, founded Oregon's Wildlife Safari park in the 1970s.

When she entered Pomona College in 1944, "there were about 32 men on campus" because of World War II, she said in a 2002 oral history. One veteran who returned to the school after the war was her future husband, Malcolm Paul Douglass.

They married soon after she graduated in 1948 with a bachelor's degree in government.

After he earned a doctorate in education from Stanford University, they moved to Claremont in 1954 so he could teach at what is now known as Claremont Graduate University.

"Between child two and three," as she phrased it in the oral history, Douglass earned her master's degree in history in 1959 from the university. She wrote her master's thesis on the Claremont Planning Commission.

"When you think of Enid, you think Claremont," said Ginger Elliott, executive director of Claremont Heritage. "She was an example of the kind of people who make the town special to us, an academic who gave a lot to the community and who worked hard for projects that were really worthwhile."

Her husband died in 2002.

Douglass' survivors include her sons, Paul Douglass, an English professor at San Jose State, and John, a research fellow with the Center for Studies in Higher Education at UC Berkeley; her daughter, Susan Douglass Yates, the City of Hope archivist; four grandchildren; and her brother John.

A celebration of her life is being planned for Jan. 8 at Claremont Graduate University.

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valerie.nelson@latimes.com

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