Q & A: Gerald Zahavi aims to stay ahead of curve on local history

Gerald Zahavi loves researching history, but that doesn’t mean you can necessarily find him combing

Gerald Zahavi loves researching history, but that doesn’t mean you can necessarily find him combing through a collection of old library books or surfing the Internet looking for traditional archival material.

Instead, Zahavi, a history professor and director of the Documentary Studies Program at the University at Albany, might be watching a film, listening to an audio recording or enjoying the music provided by an old 78-rpm record. He still has a deep affection for books and journals and other written texts, but in this day of multimedia communications, he is staying ahead of the curve.

Zahavi will be the featured speaker at Wednesday’s 15th annual Capital Region Archives Dinner at the Edison Club in Rexford. He will discuss how archivists of the 21st century can best preserve and protect their histories, regardless of the form they come in.

Zahavi was born in Israel, in a small town just east of Tel Aviv, and came to the U.S. with his family in the 1950s at the age of 7. He graduated from White Plains High School. After getting a degree in European intellectual history at Cornell University, he went on to Syracuse University for a master’s in European cultural studies and a Ph.D. in American history, with an emphasis on modern U.S. economic, social and labor history.

Zahavi has been at UAlbany since 1985, and he and his wife, a teacher in the Schenectady school district, live in Schenectady and also have a home in the Adirondacks. His students at the University at Albany keep him pretty busy these days, and he’s also working on a documentary film about farm life in Montana in the 1920s.

On Thursdays from 10 to 11 a.m., he hosts a radio talk show on WRPI, “Talking History.” His hobbies, according to his own UAlbany website, include carpentry, electronics, painting, guitar, poetry and songwriting, photography and cinematography, kayaking, sailing, fly fishing and hiking.

Q: What will you discuss at Wednesday night’s archives dinner?

A: I’m going to talk about using various types of archival material that is nontraditional — not paper, not typed or handwritten diaries, not anything that is the standard type of text we usually use.

I’ll be talking to archivists so they’ll know the problem, or at least they’re becoming familiar with it; the difficulty of preserving, restoring and reformatting visual and other various media formats. Things like a 78-rpm record. These are the pop culture items that really bring to life the history of corporate organizations like GE.

Q: So, the history of GE will also be discussed?

A: I’ve been working on different aspects of the GE story for a while now, and I’m going to talk about Association Island, a small resort island at the eastern end of Lake Ontario not too far from Watertown. The National Lamp Association started it back in 1906, and GE kind of took it under its wing in 1917. It was a recreation site for the company, and a place where GE could cultivate corporate solidarity and evaluate up-and-coming managers.

It was a privilege to be asked to attend. If you’re familiar with Kurt Vonnegut’s “Player Piano,” there’s a place there called The Meadows and it represents Association Island. I don’t know if Vonnegut actually went there when he was a speech writer at GE, but he knew all about it.

Q: When did you start getting interested in the history of GE?

A: I had been studying economic history for a while, and when I came to Albany in the mid-’80s, GE was a natural choice. It’s the mother lode of American corporate history, so I concentrated on that. There’s so much history to get into: the history of women employees there, war and business, government and business relations, the shop floor and what goes on there. Then you have union history and the age of the Communist Party, and you can also look at all the patents and inventions that have been produced by GE scientists. It can keep you busy for the rest of your life.

Q: Your oral and video history program at UAlbany includes a number of GE retirees talking about their experiences there, including Helen Quirini, a Schenectady woman who is still quite an activist for GE pensioners. Is that still a work in progress?

A: I mentioned GE being the mother lode, well I also struck the mother lode with Helen. She’s actually the one who got me started with our GE collection because she had so much stuff. It was very unusual to see a woman be so active in union activities, and to really take the lead like she did. Helen really stands out, and fortunately she had a habit of keeping records. I continue to work on it off and on, and we have students who are adding to it. A lot of it is not real glitzy stuff, so it hasn’t attracted any students yet for a dissertation, but I think it’d be a great topic.

Q: What kind of impact has GE had on the community?

A: Economics is the lifeblood of any community, and when a big corporation leaves it can be devastating. In Schenectady, we’ve lost GE — it’s only a shadow of what it was — and we also lost ALCO [American Locomotive Co.]. I try to be very fair and detailed in my documentation. I’m not out to get the company. I’m out to tell the history of corporate America, and obviously there is a lot wrong with corporate America. You don’t need me to tell you that.

But there are a lot of things going right with corporate America. I would have been critical of some of the decisions GE made, but they also offered financial security to the community for several decades.

If you track the children of GE employees, you’ll learn that they did pretty well for themselves. Their parents were paid decent wages and they had a pension. You can argue the pension was inadequate, but it’s still there and it was a lot more than many other companies gave their workers. There were a lot of benefits to being associated with GE.

Q: Why doesn’t the time period between the Civil War and World War I get more attention from average Americans?

A: I specialize in the late 19th century up to the present time. I’ve enjoyed teaching the Gilded Age, but people like to focus on big wars or the fathers of whatever community they’re talking about. But I agree there is a lot happening in that time period. The Industrial Revolution really comes into fruition in the late 19th century, and you have Colonialism, Imperialism, the Spanish-American War and the rise of radical unionism and the Socialist party. I think that time is fascinating. It’s when GE was born.

Q: What do you enjoy most about being a professor at UAlbany?

A: I like teaching, I like research and I like production. That’s the nice thing about this job, it’s a combination of my likes. The part of teaching I don’t like is grading, but it is exciting to introduce young people, and some not so young people because we have more older adults going back to school, to new ideas and a new way to look at the world through books and films and other media.

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