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Mills history project thrives

Mills College Weekly

Once a year, several women meet at Lovejoy’s Tearoom in San Francisco to discuss things such as the Mills class of 1938 and the inspirational personality of Aurelia Henry Reinhardt. Dressed in vintage finery of 20s beaded silks and 40s floral prints, the group may look and sound as if they have stepped out of a time warp, but these women are, in fact, firmly rooted in the 21st Century. They are members of a Mills oral history project.

Founded in 1993, “The Fires of Wisdom Mills Oral History Project” is a group of alumnae dedicated to recording the lives and history of Mills Women from the Classes of 1944 and earlier, encompassing the years Reinhardt was the president of the college. Through extensive interviews, the Project discovers what life at Mills and in the Bay Area was like in the early parts of the 20th Century, and transcribes and re-enacts the stories to educate today’s Mills community.

“We wanted to get their stories and learn about the old traditions,” says Mills alumna Suzette Lalime Davidson, founding member. After being inspired by a folklore class she took at the University of Maine and a women’s history class at San Francisco State University, Davidson, an american studies major, approached her faculty advisor Marianne Sheldon with the proposal of starting an oral tradition at Mills. Sheldon referred her to alumna Penny Peak, who also shared her enthusiasm. The two started the project in order to preserve the history and a sense of what Mills had been like for other generations, recruiting members and volunteers along the way. “We were all very curious about the traditions that aren’t here anymore,” Davidson says. “We wanted to create a mosaic from all these different perspectives. It truly enriches the experience of place.”

Now in its tenth year, the project has conducted over 30 interviews, from the late 102-year-old women Maud Ross Sardam, class of 1913, who helped form the student government, to May Watanabe, class of 1944, a Japanese student at Mills during WWII. By inviting all of the women to speak freely in their interviews, the project has unearthed many surprising details about Mills, including forgotten activities and rituals.

One of those details led to the reinstatement of the Lantern Ceremony, after several women had reminisced about the lovely ritual that took place before Commencement. Originally a way to say farewell to the graduating class, juniors and seniors held lanterns and sang “The Lantern Song” to each other, as they circled Lake Aliso at dusk. But over the years the song, as well as the tradition itself, was lost. The project, with the help of the Mills Alumnae Association, unearthed the original sheet music to “The Lantern Song” in the archives and recorded it on piano. The tradition was reintroduced last spring around the pond next to the concert hall and about 60 people attended, including students and alumnae. “It was moving, and lovely, with the light on the water, and the singing, just as we had been told,” Davidson says.

The project also works on an annual dramatic reading, which they began in 1998. Held in the Student Union, the members, dressed in vintage costumes and using a photo slideshow of the interviewees as background, re-enact the stories from the interviews. They have included the “Lantern Song” in their recent presentation. The next performance is scheduled for Sept. 20, to coincide with convocation and reunion. They also have a book club in which the members read texts on oral histories, how to conduct interviews and the yearly tea party at Lovejoy’s. The Lovejoy’s tea revives another tradition; teas were a big part of the social life at Mills as a way to meet friends and connect with fellow students.

The members of the project officially meet bi-monthly to go over their curriculum and their Mills alumnae-funded budget, and plan for the new directions the group is going to take. “This is the last year of the project as it stands now,” Davidson says. “We’re hoping to wind down this era, and then to take the step into the next era-1945 through the 1960’s.” Davidson is particularly interested in finding out what was happening at Mills during the Civil Rights movement.

Before they can take that step, however, they need to index the thousands of transcribed pages they already have, in order to place them in the Olin Library by next spring. The project is looking for an intern (who can receive academic credit) to help with the job.

Any Mills graduate or student can volunteer for the project, regardless of major-the only requirements are a computer and a dedication to preserving the past for the present.

“Each generation has its own vocabulary to describe their experience,” Davidson says. “To hear in their own words the stories about their education [gives] me a good sense of what it was like to be here, in the past. I heard how many alumnae found their own confidence, as I did, at Mills. I felt strengthened by the positive encouragement.” That, she says, defines the spirit of oral history. “I love it.”For more information, contact Suzette Davidson at