Editor's Note: Oral History Project Saves Key Illinoisans' Memories

Mar 1, 2013

Dana Heupel
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
“People assume, because I was so sort of early in all this, that I was heavily discriminated against — and I probably was — but I’d always claim I was too dumb to realize that I was being discriminated against.”

That is the voice of former Democratic state comptroller Dawn Clark Netsch, a pioneer for women in Illinois politics, speaking into a recorder about her time on former Gov. Otto Kerner’s staff. That’s just a tiny snippet of the 15 or more recorded hours of Netsch recalling her life in politics, including her involvement in the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment and her unsuccessful run for governor in 1994.

And the recorded interviews with Netsch only scratch the surface of the Illinois Statecraft oral history project posted online by the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield.

There are lengthy recordings with other lawmakers, such as former Illinois Senate Presidents Phil Rock and Emil Jones Jr. Former Gov. Dan Walker talks about his term in office and his time in prison, and journalists and Walker’s former aides talk about him. There are 26 interview sessions with former Gov. Jim Edgar, along with recordings of more than 30 of his aides, political opponents and journalists. There’s ERA opponent Phyllis Schlafly and others talking about their legislative battles. Political journalists recalling the Illinois politicians they covered. And much more — with more yet to come.

“My mission is to preserve the history of the state of Illinois,” says Mark DePue, director of oral history at the Lincoln Presidential Library. “Obviously, we’re only preserving a small piece of it,” he quickly adds. DePue started in his position in 2006 after a career that included service in the Army after graduating from West Point in 1976 and later in the Illinois National Guard. He also taught in the ROTC program at Western Illinois University, obtained a doctoral degree in contemporary U.S. and military history from the University of Iowa and worked as a civilian contractor for the National Guard in Washington, D.C. “What I’m doing here is quite separate from the positions before I got here,” DePue says.

Though “now, politics is our top priority,” he says, DePue’s first endeavor at oral history with the presidential library was Illinois agriculture. As he talked to various people when he began working at the library, agriculture kept coming up. “It’s something that’s central to Illinois history and something that’s neglected,” he says. Among the 84 people interviewed for the agriculture oral history project are farmers, a livestock buyer, an archivist for John Deere Co., beekeepers, a soybean researcher at the University of Illinois, a migrant farmworker and many others. 

Former Gov. Dan Walker with Mark DePue
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues

Besides Agriculture in Illinois and Illinois Statecraft, other topics that can be found on the website include: Veterans Remember, where interviewees recall their military service in conflicts from World War II through the War on Terror; Springfield African-American History, which is a donated collection; and Family Memories, which the website describes as “an eclectic mixture of interviews that do not conveniently fit into one of our other project categories.” Projects in the works but not yet posted online include a donated collection on the history of girls’ basketball in Illinois, interviews with historians, immigrant stories and the legacy of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

In the Illinois Statecraft Project, the only portion that is fully completed is the Governor Jim Edgar Series, DePue says. Interviews for other parts, including the Legislators Series, the Governor Dan Walker Series, the ERA Fight in Illinois and the Journalists’ View will continue as DePue and volunteers for the project schedule them. The Oral History Project also will include a series of interviews with and about former Gov. Richard Ogilvie, along with a series on Illinois Justices. A project involving former Gov. Jim Thompson will be formally announced soon, DePue says.

He adds that eventually, he would like to do a series of interviews with and about former governors George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich, who were sent to prison after being convicted of malfeasance in office.

DePue is the only paid staffer for the Oral History Project. His salary, along with a small budget for travel, some equipment and money to have some transcripts professionally done, comes entirely from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation, not from state funds. Some of the projects are sponsored through fundraising or grants from outside sources. There are about a dozen volunteer interviewers who are trained before they sit down with their subjects, and another dozen or so who transcribe or edit the conversations. DePue does the lion’s share of interviews on veterans and politics himself.

For the Illinois Statecraft project, DePue generally holds off on interviews “until someone has retired because, otherwise, politicians will be too jaded.” To this point, interviewers have sat down with more Republicans than Democrats because “Democrats don’t retire,” he says with a laugh. That imbalance will be corrected over time, he says. “You get different perspectives from different sides of the fence.”

After an interview is recorded, it is transcribed and edited and then sent to the interview subject, along with photos and captions DePue intends to use on the website. On several occasions, interviewees have wanted to redact something they said, and DePue says he does his best to try to persuade them to allow him to hold those parts for publication in the future. Other interviews have been redacted to correct wrong or misremembered information.

Recent online interviews feature published excerpts, DePue says, of “interesting things to get people interested.”

Former Gov. Jim Edgar with DePue
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues

The oral history interviews on all the topics provide a wealth of insights, DePue says. Among his favorites are campaign consultant and former state administrator Carter Hendren talking about the 1990 race for governor, journalist Bernard Schoenburg reminiscing about his early years as a reporter, Walker relating his experience in prison and Korean War veteran Bill Smith recalling the 2 ½ years he spent in a Chinese prisoner-of-war camp. 

“I love the veterans’ stories,” says DePue, who retired from the National Guard as a lieutenant colonel. “Bill and [his wife] Charlotte Smith have one of the most amazing love stories you can imagine.” 

Illinois Issues, March 2013