~ By Doug Moe / Madison Magazine (read the full article here!)
In 2015, Troy Reeves, head of the University of Wisconsin–Madison Oral History Program, sat down with Phil Pelliteri, known far and wide as “the bug guy.” He had to. It is Reeves’ job to capture the most significant and interesting campus voices, and people kept saying Pelliterri, who spent decades in the campus insect diagnostic lab, would be awesome. “And he was” Reeves says.
Now Pelliterri’s insightful musings on the bug world are recorded by Reeves for all time, and available digitally for anyone to hear.
It’s what Reeves has been doing, mostly alone, since arriving in Madison from Idaho in 2007. But Reeves still has a list of about 350 people he wants to interview.
“It’s never going to shrink,” Reeves says of the list, because whenever he gives a talk — or if someone just learns what he does for a living — another name will surface. “I know you said your list is too long,” a plaintive voice will say, “but I know somebody you absolutely must interview.”
The thing is, the oral history program, which began in 1971, has already collected more than 1,750 interviews, spanning more than 4,500 hours. All interviews are digitized and accessible.
Subjects include prominent UW–Madison figures. They have more than 40 hours with former Chancellor Irv Shain — “too much,” in Reeves’ estimation — as well as lesser-known individuals whose positions gave them unique perspectives. To those campus life histories, the program adds topic-based interviews — talks with multiple sources about a single subject. One early example: the 1970 strike by the UW–Madison Teaching Assistants Association.
One of Reeves’ first interviews in Madison involved a member of Madison’s LGBTQ community. He spoke with Ron McCrea, a well-respected journalist and gay activist whose 1982 appointment as press secretary to Gov. Tony Earl brought controversy, including an inflammatory front-page headline in the Milwaukee Sentinel.
The interview remains one of Reeves’ favorites. McCrea has similar warm memories.
“We met for hours in the Ag [Steenbock] Library, and he was an attentive interviewer,” McCrea recalls. “He was well-prepared with questions … The topic was the beginnings of Madison gay liberation, the gay men’s movement here in the 1970s, my own coming out and my role as an activist speaker and organizer. Troy was very young and polite … I was grateful that he gave so much time and attention to the subject.”
Reeves, now 47, was born and raised in East Idaho. “Halfway between Salt Lake City and the entrance to Yellowstone,” as he puts it.
He was valedictorian of his high school class of about 140 students. But it wasn’t until college at Idaho State University that a professor named Ron Hatzenbuehler demonstrated that history could be more than names and dates.
“You need those as scaffolding,” Reeves says. “But they don’t mean much if you don’t understand the context of what happened before and after.”
Hatzenbuehler gave Reeves his first interview opportunity. The class could either take a test or interview a person who lived through the Great Depression. Reeves interviewed his grandmothers.
“The act of asking questions and listening to their answers humanized them,” he says. “Before, they were ladies who gave me cookies. Now they had another context — meeting husbands, living through hard times. I was hooked.”
He knew he wanted to be a historian, with an interview component. Reeves did projects requiring multiple interviews on Verda Barnes — a pioneering woman in Idaho politics, as top aide to Sen. Frank Church — and the Eastern Idaho State Fair. Eventually Reeves landed a volunteer position at the Idaho Oral History Center in Boise. In 1999, he was hired to run it. His job title: “historian, oral.” It was an operation run by him and one part-timer.
By the time the UW–Madison job became available in 2007, Reeves was married. He met Christine in Idaho and today they have a teenage daughter and son.
Reeves was pleasantly surprised to be hired at UW–Madison. He thinks his outreach in Idaho and his familiarity with the Wisconsin Idea helped him get the offer.
The Wisconsin Oral History Program is part of the UW Archives, which is under the UW Libraries umbrella. Reeves is now essentially a one-person operation, occasionally getting help from students and volunteers.
One current project involves interviewing African-American athletes. Not long ago, Reeves sat down with former UW–Madison basketball players Rashard Griffith and Howard Moore. Graduate students also helped with “Capitol Protest 2011,” the oral history project about the large-scale opposition to Act 10, which ended collective bargaining rights and other benefits for most public employees in Wisconsin. “I think we’re just short of 30 interviews on that one,” Reeves says.
His work and the work of his predecessors have been of great help to students, academic researchers, journalists, authors and occasionally someone just hoping to hear a grandmother’s voice again.
That was the case recently when a New York woman named Shoshanah Tarkow reached out to Reeves wondering if she might get a link to the interview of Elizabeth M. Tarkow, who spent 20 years as an administrator at UW–Madison, starting in 1958. Reeves provided the link. Tarkow emailed back how much it meant to her.
“I rarely have bad days at work,” Reeves says. “But those are the best days.”
Doug Moe is a Madison writer and a former editor of Madison Magazine. Read his weekly blog, “Doug Moe’s Madison, on madisonmagazine.com.