Colleagues remember Cliff Kuhn
By Linda Shopes, Carlisle, Pennsylvania
I can’t remember when I first met Cliff – I thought it was sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s, when he was conducting interviews for Living Atlanta and I was involved with the Baltimore Neighborhood Heritage Project, but Cliff said that wasn’t so. At any rate, my first memory of him is at the 1988 OHA meeting in Baltimore, where I was living at the time. Each evening, when the program was over, I drove him to the home of one of his friends, where he was staying while in the city. Of course: Cliff seemed to know everybody. What I remember most is that he talked incessantly – about his work, about the meeting, about history, about politics. His restless energy, his roving mind, his intense desire to share – that was Cliff.
I subsequently served with Cliff on the OHA Council in the mid 1990s; appointed him as program co-chair, with the late Debra Bernhardt, for the 1998 annual meeting in Buffalo, New York, when I was OHA president; and co-chaired, with Rina Benmayor, the search committee that led to locating the OHA executive office at Georgia State, with Cliff as OHA’s first executive director. Most recently, I accepted his invitation to serve as an advisor to OHA’s effort to define oral history as scholarship and consulted with him on the association’s response to the Office of Human Research Protection’s recommendation that oral history be excluded from IRB review. In all of these it was an utter pleasure to work with Cliff: for all of his larger than life persona, his apparently indefatigable capacity to cultivate networks and relationships, his passion for justice, you could also count on him to get the job done. And he was just fun to work with: at the recent OHA meeting, we shared a laugh about our travels around Buffalo as we planned the 1998 annual meeting.
Over the years, our professional relationship, always congenial, matured into friendship. Last year, when my husband and I missed a plane connection and were stranded overnight in Atlanta, I called Cliff out of the blue and asked if we could spend the night at his house. He and Kathie welcomed us with open arms – at midnight – and what was a huge inconvenience turned into a lovely experience. There’s not too many people I’d feel comfortable imposing on like this. But Cliff’s and Kathie’s hospitality was boundless.
I have always thought of Cliff as one of “my tribe,” a group of people who came of age in the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s and for whom history, oral and otherwise, is a means of both democratizing the past and promoting a more just present. Our shared experiences over the years have been a defining feature of my life.
Godspeed, my friend. You are sorely missed.
“To Be a Friend”
By Lu Ann Jones, National Park Service
Since Cliff’s sudden passing I have found comfort in the words of two wise friends and a poet. Virgie St. John Redmond, one of the rural elders I interviewed nearly 30 years ago, recently remarked, “Life is but a vapor.” In spite of her 95 years, she saw life as a fragile and transient gift.
Where had the time gone since Cliff and I met at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, both of us in the orbit of the Southern Oral History Program? As I think about it, Cliff was probably the first public historian that I knew. From the start, he was so excited about his work, and he wanted to share it with others. He did this through radio documentaries, a book of Atlanta oral histories and work rooted in community. Cliff showed that you could make a career—and a life—by following your passions. I’ll always remember the afternoon that my husband and I joined his walking tour describing the Atlanta race riot. It’s a cliché, but it’s true: his gift for storytelling made the events of 1906 come alive for us. He displayed this same excitement in his scholarship, in the classroom and as a public intellectual. He leaves a tangible legacy, and yet Virgie Redmond was right. Cliff’s life was also like a vapor—fleeting, gone too soon.
Lurline Stokes Murray, another of my southern farm women, taught me, “To have a friend, you have to be a friend.” My friendship with Cliff took many forms. My husband and I spent two of the best Thanksgivings ever when Cliff and his family invited us to join them at a Gulf Coast beach where they celebrated the holiday annually with good food, good company and lots of laughter. But a touchstone of our friendship was our visits at the annual meetings of the Oral History Association. It always seemed like we took up where we had just left off. We traded news of family and friends. We talked about our work, celebrating achievements but also trusting each other enough to acknowledge struggles and doubts. Cliff always lifted my spirits. Endlessly curious, he sometimes turned our OHA visits into real adventures. Listen to Cliff’s three favorite stories about OHA meetings, featured elsewhere in the Newsletter. We told our “Alaska story” every time we saw each other, and we never tired of laughing at how naïve we were to be driving a Chevy Geo in the wilds of Alaska.
Finally, since Cliff’s death, I have thought of a question posed by the poet Mary Oliver. At the end of “The Summer Day” she asks, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” We know what Cliff did with his. He lived more wholeheartedly than anyone I’ve ever known. We’ll miss him.
By Todd Moye, OHA First Vice President, University of North Texas
Others will write about the many wonderful things Cliff Kuhn did for the oral history community. I share their sentiments and I appreciate him for all of the same reasons, but I’d like to celebrate Cliff for what he did for my hometown of Atlanta.
Cliff was the platonic ideal of a mensch, a connector who loved nothing more than to bond—genuinely bond—with other human beings over stories, and to encourage others who shared that passion. He was more dedicated to the ideals of democracy, egalitarianism and social justice, not as theories but as ways of living and learning, than just about anyone else I have known. I’m grateful that he chose to live and learn in Atlanta, where he worked as a radio documentarian for most of two decades, and as a history professor at Georgia State University for another two, and as a public historian from the day he first parked his bike there until nearly the day he died.
I grew up in the Atlanta suburb of Sandy Springs. When I moved back to the city in 2000 to direct an oral history project for the National Park Service, he was one of the first people I called to introduce myself. We got together for coffee and hit it off. He said, “You know, there are so many oral historians in Atlanta these days. We should really find a way to get together to discuss things.” So we did: he and I convened the Atlanta Oral History Roundtable, and with a couple dozen others we met more or less monthly for the next five years. (We usually met at Manuel’s Tavern. In admitting this I should also apologize to the taxpayers of Georgia and the United States—he and I were, after all, public employees—for the amount of fun we had during working hours. But we did work, and we always drank iced tea.)
By 2005 he was deep into his efforts to commemorate the centennial of the low point of Atlanta’s history, the 1906 Race Riot, and to help Atlantans draw lessons from it. A coalition of social justice activists, religious people, public historians, amateur history buffs and others were planning public programming for 2006. Cliff and Clarissa Myrick-Harris, another stalwart of the Atlanta Oral History Roundtable organized the local historians and genealogists. I moved away from Atlanta in 2005 to start a new job in Texas, and I still have some regrets that I was not able to work with Cliff and Clarissa through 2006 for the centennial, because they truly did great things and started conversations that the people of Atlanta clearly needed to have.
Cliff wrote two important books and several scholarly articles, but he was never content just to do research and write about what he had learned. He helped organize public symposia about the 1906 riot’s history and memory and saw to it that the event made it into the state’s public school history curriculum standards. (I attended Georgia public schools in the 1970s and 1908s, but I didn’t learn about the riot until I was in graduate school, and even then I didn’t know much about it until I met Cliff.) He also developed what he’d learned in the course of his race riot research into a walking tour of the sites of the worst violence throughout Downtown Atlanta: he literally walked the walk of racial justice. In fact, Cliff thought the term “race riot” did not fully describe what had happened in 1906 because it implied that the mayhem had been two-sided. Instead he called it a “white riot.” Between the fall of 2006 and October 2015 he led at least one walking tour a month. Thousands of Atlantans participated in and benefited from the tours and the conversations they generated. Long before southerners started rethinking the prominence of Confederate flags in public places or saying Black Lives Matter, Cliff had Atlantans from every walk of life puzzling over the meanings of the riot and wondering why they had never heard of it before 2006. As much as I cherish Cliff’s books, I think the walking tour was his opus.
The walking tours were so popular that Central Atlanta Progress Inc., a booster group sponsored by downtown developers, presented Cliff with their 2013 Turner Downtown Community Leadership Award. The award was “designed to recognize those in our community who, as individual private citizens, step forward and do good work on Downtown’s behalf.” The less said here about the developers behind CAP the better, but I can guarandamntee you they have never honored anyone else whose politics remotely resembled Cliff’s! In the video that the group produced to honor his work, a narrator describes Cliff as “an oral historian: a title that suits his unique ability to retell historical events from memory.” That might not be a very good definition of oral historians in general, but it describes Cliff perfectly, because in addition to being an oral historian who recorded and archived people’s memories, he was a griot who remembered and cherished and retold them. Atlantans are better off today for having heard those stories and having had to wrestle with them.
I am and will remain grateful to Cliff for a lot of things, but I’m most thankful that he did more than his part to make Atlanta a more democratic and slightly more just place and that he did it by putting the skills he developed as an oral historian to work. I will always remember Cliff as a preternaturally gifted talker, but also (to borrow the term his Georgia State colleague Alex Sayf Cummings coined), as Atlanta’s greatest listener. I appreciate Cliff for starting conversations.
Remembering Cliff Kuhn
By Charles Hardy, West Chester University
Cliff and I have been friends since 1984, so yeah, just about half our lives. We met at a National Federation of Community Broadcasters conference and hit it off immediately. We were the same age, doing the same kind of work–working in public radio producing documentaries that used oral history interviews– and both trying to figure out what comes next. In the years that followed, Cliff was always excited about the project he was working on, always eager to share what he was doing, to talk about who he had just met, or the trip he had just taken. He was always eager, too, to hear with equal enthusiasm and interest what I was up to. And Cliff remembered. He remembered my travails and successes, and our beginnings and our adventures.
The first of the latter took place in Pensacola in 1985, my first OHA meeting. There, someone had organized a volley ball game, so we drove out to a beautiful beach on the Gulf Islands National Seashore. I don’t even remember if the net was up before a great storm came roaring into the coast. Could that actually have been Hurricane Juan? As the skies darkened we ran back to the car and sped across the Route 98 causeway as the storm bore down the Bay, shaking and tipping the blue subcompact.
In the decades that followed the OHA became a home away from home for both of us. Every few years we would hop a trolley or rent a car and head off for a new adventure. Most memorable for me was at the 2006 meeting, when rather than go see Senator Barack Obama speak in Little Rock we drove out to Petit Jean State Park. Hiking along mountain and river trails on a cool, drizzly October day we talked at our leisure about family, kids, careers, aspirations and the beauty of the park and the day. Cliff took tremendous delight in the all-American road food on the way back, crappy burgers and fries ordered by intercom, which we ate in the car. He relished each bite and recollections of the day with equal enthusiasm.
It was about that time, too, that Cliff persuaded me to accept the nomination for OHA vice president and president. Over the next three years he provided much needed moral support and invaluable advice on how to run an annual meeting, raise money, choose the right people…
Over three decades he was always there to help. When my daughter and her bandmates needed a place to stay in Atlanta, Cliff and Kathie put them up. In Tampa we got away for one dinner, with a friend and two students who had accompanied me from West Chester. As usual, Cliff was welcoming, curious about their lives, filled with stories, and overflowing with energy. Dying at home after a good bike ride is not a bad way to go. It was just way too soon. He was a good friend and I will miss him.
Memories of Cliff
By Mary Larson, Oklahoma State University
I was president of OHA when Cliff came on board as the organization’s first executive director, so I was fortunate enough to experience all of his unbridled enthusiasm firsthand. From the moment the transition committee selected Georgia State University’s proposal to become the OHA’s new headquarters, Cliff was in constant communication with so many of us – on everything imaginable and at all hours of the day.
I am a person with strong archival roots, and in the days after Cliff’s passing I took a look at my collection of emails as a way of trying to gain some perspective on all of this, though what exactly I hoped to learn I couldn’t really tell you. I can say that my inbox from those first months of the transition is a veritable shrine to Cliff’s energy and his inclination to dive into the deep end immediately, but it also showed me, rather unexpectedly, that my regular email correspondence with Cliff went back much farther than that, even though we had never shared any task force duties and had only served together on one committee. My email archive only extends back to 2001, but at its farthest reaches, there are emails from Cliff – the earliest ones following up on an award in 2001 when he was OHA president, later ones discussing a panel in 2006, workshops at the Atlanta meeting in 2010, and the list goes on.
Even without people necessarily noticing it, Cliff was an ever-present force in the life of OHA for many years, and his almost boyish delight at becoming executive director of the association he loved so well was apparent to all of us. Cliff’s enthusiasm for OHA was not a gentle wave – it was more like a tsunami, and he somehow maintained that same level of energy with so many of his other pursuits, as well. All of us who were buoyed by that exuberance will miss his ebullience, his attention to detail, his grand schemes, and his kind heart. Oral history has lost a dogged advocate with Cliff’s passing.
At the 2015 OHA conference in Tampa, past presidents were invited to share their favorite memories of OHA experiences in interviews that were videotaped in connection with planning for the organization’s 50th anniversary next year. Here’s a sampling from the interview with Cliff Kuhn, produced for the OHA Newsletter by Paul Ortiz and Deborah Hendrix: