Sam Proctor: Teacher, Historian, Legend

Sam Proctor is not only a three-time graduate of the University of Florida, he's also been a professor at UF for the past 50 years. During his half-century of service to the university, he has taught several thousand students, served as the university's historian, edited the Florida Historical Quarterly and single-handedly created the oral history program with a hand-made tape recorder. He's standing in front of Library West where the more than 3,200 interviews are stored.

After 50 years of service to the University of Florida, Sam Proctor retires. Behind him he leaves a legacy.

The retirement of the University of Florida's official historian isn't just the end of 50 years of service to the university, it's the end of a legacy. This will be the first year a member of Sam Proctor's family hasn't been at UF either as a student or as a teacher since 1933, excluding the years during World War II.

"I grew up in Jacksonville and had only been to Gainesville one other time. My cousin graduated from UF law school in 1933 so we came down for his commencement and that gave me a taste of Gainesville. This is the only place I gave any thought to and certainly it was the only one that my family could afford," Proctor said. "My brothers all graduated from here, my sister-in-law is a graduate and my two sons are graduates as well. There were also a myriad of nieces, nephews and cousins. We are a real Gator family."

He completed all of his degrees in history at the university, then became a history professor in 1946 and has been here ever since.

During his tenure, Proctor has taught several thousand students, served as the university's historian, edited the Florida Historical Quarterly and single-handedly created UF's oral history program.

"Oral history was made to order for somebody like me," he said. "My research was always Florida history and we had very poor archives in the state, almost nothing in Tallahassee." Looking back, Proctor admits that the program - which now has more than 3,200 interviews in its collection - started almost by accident in 1967. The director of libraries at the time, Margaret Goggin, funded his trip to a national seminar on oral history and when he returned, she encouraged him to give it a try.

"It was not difficult to start because I had an office in the library and in that day and time, you didn't need to spend a lot of money on equipment and teaching resources. I built a tape recorder and since we had no travel expenses, I decided to work with people living in and around Gainesville who had had a long-time association with the university," Proctor said.

His initial interview was with Marna Brady, the first dean of women, who provided a great deal of information about how women organized their athletic program on campus, how they formed their first clubs and honor societies and even how they created dress codes.

"While I knew that the files were filled with materials about the number of women coming in and what they were registering for and the construction of the women's dorm, they would not have the day-to-day information you would get only from talking with someone who was there and had experienced everything," he said. "Marna was my across-the-street neighbor and readily agreed to be interviewed."

After Brady, he interviewed such legendary UF dignitaries as Deans Norman and Weil, all of the university's presidents and even Mrs. Tigert, who shared her experience on coming to Gainesville in 1928 and what the campus looked like at that time.

In 1970, the fledgling program received some much-needed recognition. The Doris Duke Indian Oral History Program asked UF to do a one-year program with the Indians of Florida. It was then expanded the following year - with the cooperation of the departments of history and anthropology - to include all of the Indians of the southeastern U.S.

"That really put us on the map because of the financial support," he said. "From there on in, we began working exhaustively with oral history."

Major projects include the history of the University of Florida, the history of the southeastern Indians, Florida business leaders, major political personalities like Senator Bob Graham and the history of African Americans.

Proctor admits he's surprised at how people's attitudes have changed since the oral history program first started.

"When we started in the 50s and 60s, there were a lot of people who were apprehensive when somebody like me called them up or wrote them a letter requesting an interview," he said. "They didn't know me from Adam and here I'd be appearing with a tape recorder asking all kinds of personal questions and saying that when it was finished it was going into the UF oral history archives."

Now, Proctor is turning people away who want to be interviewed.

"Oral history has been so widely accepted that a lot of people are upset when I haven't gotten in touch with them," he said. "They wonder why I didn't think they were good enough or prominent enough to be interviewed."

Besides being an excellent resource for researchers and graduate students, Proctor feels oral history fills an important void where traditional accounts of history leave off.

"Remember that most of the history written up until the second half of the 20th century is really the history of the elites, the people at the top. We know a lot about the American Revolution, but we only know about it in terms of the George Washingtons and the Thomas Jeffersons and the John Adams, those people who had a secretary to record things. We don't know very much about the role that women played or what blacks were doing or what farm workers were doing. We know even less about children in history," he said.

"And now the tape recorder comes in and gives people who were voiceless in history a chance to have some input. So as a result, the books that are being published now in the U.S. and elsewhere give, for the first time, a history of many minority groups that we have very little information on. I think that's why oral history has been so widely popularized."

Editor's note: Despite his retirement status, Proctor will continue working on several projects including the history of the UF Health Science Center. He will be succeeded as director by Julian Pleasants, professor of history.