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Real Florida

Speaking historically

Samuel Proctor, who spent much of his life delving deeply into the state's past, leaves behind a talking legacy.

Published August 18, 2005

[Times photo: Stephen J. Coddington]
A photograph of the late Dr. Samuel Proctor, who was director emeritus of the University of Florida’s Samuel Proctor Oral History Program, sits atop some of the thousands of audiotapes that stuff the file cabinets of the program’s headquarters.

GAINESVILLE - The Samuel Proctor Oral History Program, housed at the University of Florida, is probably the most quiet spot on the whole campus. Nobody talks in any of the offices. Or at least you don't hear them. You hear the hum of air conditioning, footsteps, typing. Always the click of a tape recorder.

It would be different if Sam were around. Sam was hardly a bashful man. He had a piercing voice that carried down the hall, down the stairwells, down the street all the way to the Plaza of the Americas.

Sam Proctor's voice was important. He was the official historian for the university, but he was the dean of historians in Florida. He died at 3:29 a.m. on July 10 at home. He had been sick for years. He was 86.

His wife, Bessie, and his two adult sons, Mark and Alan, grieve. So do friends and students who remained loyal for decades. "He was among the most influential teachers I ever had," says his most famous protege, former governor and senator Bob Graham. "He had the ability to excite you about history and what it meant to be a Floridian."

Whenever he visited Gainesville, Graham dropped by for a chat with his old professor. Graham would sit in an easy chair and try to relax. It was not always easy relaxing, because everything he said to Proctor tended to be on the record.

Sam Proctor, that steel-trap mind, and that infernal tape recorder!

He was known as "Mister History," but he could have just as easily been called "the Question Man."

One of a kind

Even when he was young, he liked asking questions. Go back to 1936. That's when he traveled from his home in Jacksonville to the UF campus to study history. Among other things, he often asked questions about the swashbuckling Florida Gov. Napoleon Bonaparte Broward. As the 20th century dawned, the governor dreamed of civilizing the Everglades.

"Yes, the Everglades is a swamp," Broward told skeptics who wondered if draining the Everglades might be possible, "but so was Chicago 60 years ago." Proctor wrote his doorstop of a master's thesis - 560 pages - about Broward. In two semesters.

He joined the Army in 1942. There is no record of him ever questioning his boot camp drill instructor, but it is fun to think about. At Camp Blanding, near Starke, he taught illiterate recruits how to read and write. After the war, he returned to the UF campus to teach Florida history.

"He taught by telling stories that emphasized the humanity of the people who shaped the state," says Bob Graham, who first sat in Proctor's classroom in 1956. "He never stressed dates and the impersonal. In his hands, history came alive."

Proctor never yearned to teach anywhere else. His doctoral thesis, about the history of UF, went on for 600 pages. He could have written more, but he ran out of time and perhaps paper.

Later, he edited the prestigious Florida Historical Quarterly, a publication read by teachers, historians and politicians throughout the country. Most editors of scholarly journals last a year or so, burn out, or just decide to give somebody else a turn. Proctor exercised his exacting standards for three decades. Yet he never quit the classroom. "We will never see his likes again," says Gary Mormino, a history professor at the University of South Florida. "He built an academic empire, which just isn't done anymore. As it says in the Old Testament, "There were giants in those days.' "

Mormino never studied under Proctor. But he wrote for Proctor's Quarterly. He remembers the experience as, ahem, educational. Phone rings. Sam Proctor on the line. Questions, questions, infernal questions about the manuscript!

"He could be daunting."

Recording the past

In the old days, people wrote letters. They wrote letters about their carbuncles, their lumbago, their rickets. They wrote about the day lightning hit the oak, which crushed the Cracker cabin, thus prompting a move from Two Egg to Ocala, where granny was famous for her quilts before her death from malaria.

People wrote letters that explained the reality of surviving in Florida. Of course, many letters ended up in the fireplace. But some were tied with ribbon and tossed into a dresser drawer. Years later, somebody would push aside the mothballs and read the letters. With luck, the letters fell into the hands of a historian.

Fewer people write letters now. If they write at all, they write e-mail. Sooner or later, e-mail clogs up the computer and the computer owner has to delete the e-mail. Historians hate e-mail.

Like most historians, Proctor valued finding an old letter. Even better was finding someone, still breathing, who had something relevant to say about life in Florida. Reading an obituary, he would lament that no historian had ever asked that person a question for the record.

He changed that in 1967. He started interviewing interesting people using a tape recorder. Subjects didn't have to be former governors, though he interviewed lots of politicians. They could be homemakers, next-door neighbors, fruit pickers, orange barons, alligator wrestlers, the grandchildren of slaves. That is how the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program was born.

"Remember that most of the history written up until the second half of the 20th century is really the history of the elites," Proctor once said. "Now the tape recorder comes in and gives people who were voiceless in history a chance to have some input."

The oral history program contains 4,000 tapes and counting. It is the largest collection in the South and considered among the best in the United States.

"I think it will be his legacy," Mormino says. "He was a wonderful teacher and an outstanding editor, and those things are important, but 200 years from now, historians will relish listening to those interviews. There is something about hearing the human voice. You get the soul."

History meets technology

Years from now, when historians write about Sen. Bob Graham, they will have gobs of information for study. A Graham library conceivably might include vaults containing speeches and legislative accounts and newspaper clippings and his notebooks stacked up to the ceilings. In fact, a historian might find it almost too much to deal with.

But Proctor's talks with Graham, on tape, are human and revealing. Revealing, by the way, of both of them. In 1996, Proctor asked Graham about his tough 1986 Senate race against Paula Hawkins that featured brass-knuckles campaigning. Proctor, the experienced teacher who seldom was fooled by a student's bluff, found Graham's tame explanation somewhat lacking.

"That sounds just like the Southern gentleman," Proctor growls on the tape, "a lot of mishmash without saying very much."

You can find that tape in a drawer at UF. The transcript is in a filing cabinet next door. Across the hall is the office of Julian Pleasants, 66. A longtime UF history professor, Pleasants is now directing the oral history program.

He teaches students interviewing techniques and dispatches them to question Floridians. Of course, he asks many questions himself.

He questioned old men about their memories of building Florida's state parks during the Depression on behalf of the Civilian Conservation Corps. His interviews with well-known newspaper writers and editors are in the files and in a book, Orange Journalism, published in 2003. His interviews with politicians and poll workers are in the files and in his latest book, Hanging Chads: The Inside Story of the 2000 Presidential Recount in Florida.

Recently he interviewed Floridians about their World War II combat experiences.

"They are dying at a rapid clip now," Pleasants says. "It was important to get them on the record."

He talked to a tough old Marine who recounted the day a huge red hole suddenly appeared in his buddy's chest during a machine gun battle. The old Marine plugged the hole with his own fist, but it didn't help. His buddy died.

"Suddenly the man I am interviewing burst into tears," Pleasants says. At that moment, it wasn't 2005. It was 1945, and the Battle of Okinawa was still raging.

Everything is on audiotape, but recently Pleasants collected enough money from donations and funding to purchase a video camera. Oral historians are now collecting video to go along with the voices.

The next step for the program is an improved Internet presence. Eventually, if Pleasants can raise more money - Proctor's genius for fundraising was legendary - all interviews will be available to anyone with access to the Internet. A kid living in, say, Pensacola will be able to listen to 100-year-old Marjory Stoneman Douglas' aristocratic way of talking about the Everglades.

The spark remains

In the late afternoon, the oral history department is as quiet as a tomb. Pleasants has left for the day. So has his secretary. The only person on the job is a graduate student aide. She sits in a dimly lit office, wearing ear buds, transcribing a World War II interview.

When she takes a break, her tape machine is free. Open it up, throw in a new tape, hit play.

In 1993, on the tape, Sam Proctor is talking to another historian. Proctor's voice is somewhat piercing and slightly Southern, a kind of Truman Capote Southern, precise and fussy with just a trace of buttered grits.

Proctor and his interviewer talk about teaching history, about gathering oral history, about writing history. It is shop talk, not very sexy: a couple of history professors, colleagues and friends, shooting the bull. Yet the interviewer, frankly, sounds as awed as a schoolboy. Many competent historians felt like schoolboys in Proctor's imperial presence.

The interviewer asks Proctor about his greatest contribution to Florida. Proctor talks with pride - you can hear it in his voice - about all the students he persuaded to study history over almost four decades.

"I feel that using the word "igniter' may not be the right word," Proctor says, "but it certainly gives the meaning of what I want."

Turn off the tape recorder. Remove the ear buds.

At the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program office, silence is indeed deafening.

-- Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at 727 893-8727 and

-- For more information about the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program, call 352 392-7168 or visit

[Last modified August 17, 2005, 13:21:20]

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