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Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017 02:31 pm

Robert P. Howard on tape

 In "Gathering nuts," I tried to pay tribute to that a string of Springfield men who played a surprising large role in the acceptance of oral history as a means of research into the past, beginning with William Herndon, Lincoln’s last law partner.

When I wrote that column I was not aware that Robert P. Howard, the long-time Chicago Tribune statehouse reporter, had anticipated me by more than 40 years in the summer 1973 issue of Sangamon, the short-lived alumni magazine of then-Sangamon State University. His article, "History in Print," includes this bit:

Remembering that an old uncle used to warn me against interfering with the wheels of progress, I have tried not to be antagonistic when electronic gear is hauled into the presence of men who use ball points to scribble notes on borrowed copy paper. Television and radio do compete with newspapers, for advertising revenue as well as for news breaks. Tom Littlewood of the Sun-Times a decade ago bitterly protested that a man being interviewed before cameras and microphones would never contribute in-depth answers, in part because he would hesitate to give off-the-record or qualified information while the reels turned. And the late Don Chamberlain did his best to bar television and radio men from the Capitol press room, Bob Foster of WGN excepted. 

Nevertheless, in my role as an old timer who in his later years felt a little self-conscious when carrying a tape recorder, I can't help but applaud Professor Cullom Davis' pioneering in the field of oral history. Interviewing always has been one of the most important journalistic techniques, and Davis the historian is helping to make it a science.

Regretfully, Davis did not start his oral history project in time to preserve the salty diction and hill country twang of one of the unique characters of the last half century, the late Paul Powell. Part of the blame should be on my shoulders. It was more than twenty years ago, on an occasion when Powell the legislator was speaking in an uncomplimentary manner about Governor Adlai Stevenson, that I realized that his dialect, if not his opinions, should be preserved on tape, for better or for worse. Not too long before his death, Powell, as was his custom, invited the press room to a luncheon at the St. Nicholas Hotel for the unveiling of a report by a special committee he had appointed to study some phase of the secretary of state's office. Predictably, with the bar open, the meal was delayed an hour while Powell, always a great raconteur, began telling some of the colorful tales of his first terms in the house of representatives, when underpaid legislators slept in their cars because their pocketbooks were flattened by the depression, when a preacher from his

Southern Illinois district was brought to Springfield, to serve as House chaplain for a week, during which protocol required that Powell take the preacher each night to the Lake Club or some other expensive place of entertainment, and when the preacher, who had acquired a taste for Springfield after hours, turned on his host by running for state representative in a primary campaign that had the unexpected benefit of bringing Powell and John Stelle, a future governor, into the same Democratic faction. I missed that performance, because I was talking to a long-lost friend in another part of the room and later I did not attempt to elbow my way into the secretary of state's audience. Having heard the stories before, it did not seem vital to be in the front row again, but that was my last chance to listen to Powell at his best. Since then my advice to oral historians is to work harder at getting prominent men on tape.

Both Davis and Mark DePue of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum did just that in the years since.

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