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Post Bill Ratliff: Some Reminiscences
Created by John Eipper on 04/21/14 3:34 AM

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Bill Ratliff: Some Reminiscences (Edward Jajko, USA, 04/21/14 3:34 am)

Some reminiscences of Bill Ratliff.

On Yom Kippur, 1982, I had my job interview at the Hoover Institution Library. In the short time that I was able to allot to my visit to California for this purpose, the woman from whom I had learned about the job opening and who would later become an esteemed colleague most graciously drove me around the area, showing me the Stanford campus and parts of adjacent Palo Alto. As we drove along El Camino Real, I was thrilled to see an actual Slavic book shop, strengthening my desires and hopes that I would get the Hoover job. Months later, I was introduced by an old friend to the enormously gracious as well as learned owners of that book store, and as I became their occasional customer over the years, they became my friends. I recall saying to Mrs. Szwede, years after that encounter, that when I first met her and her husband, and was introduced to their store, I had never imagined that I would become one of Mr. Szwede's pallbearers.

This episode in my life has come to mind during the past week and more. I had been mentally sketching out two WAIS postings--one on Japheth son of Noah, the other on JE's travels in Mexico--and had written down a couple of notes and had consulted my Anchor Bible Dictionary. I had never imagined that, while considering these postings on WAIS, I would wind up writing one memorializing my friend Bill Ratliff.

Bill and I were curatorial colleagues in the Hoover Institution Library. For how many years, I can't say at this point. My chronology has grown hazy. I can't recall when he took over the Americas Collection on the retirement of curator Joseph Bingaman. It has to have been around 1990, perhaps a little before. Bill reoriented the collecting policy of the Americas Collection. Joe, a librarian, had (as was his job) emphasized the building of the Hoover's collections of books and serials from and on the Americas. This included what were then rare, hard to acquire materials from Cuba. When Bill took over, he minimized collection of library materials and instead emphasized acquisition of archives, primary sources. This was in line with a change in emphasis on the part of the head of Hoover's library and archives. Bill was highly successful in his work. He developed contacts throughout Latin America, from Mexico and Central America quite literally down to Tierra del Fuego. He dealt with political opposition groups, armed fighters of various kinds, and government officials all the way up to presidents of some Latin American countries. He acquired archival collections of militant groups, governments, and statesmen. As Bill got deeper into this work, he seemed to spend as much as half his time traveling, making contacts and acquiring more materials or at least commitments to send materials.

In addition, Bill acquired people, bringing back to the Hoover a number of individuals who were influential in governments or opposition groups. They spent time at the Hoover as visiting fellows, occasionally giving talks, and participating with Bill in the writing of books.

Bill was a deadly serious worker, totally dedicated to what he was doing, which was the fulfillment of the mission of the Hoover Institution Library and Archives by documenting the political and social movements of the area that he was responsible for. But, while annoyances could cause his temper to flare up suddenly, he clearly enjoyed what he was doing immensely. It was always clear that he also immensely enjoyed what the rest of us were doing. I should say here that the offices of the Hoover Institution Library's curators--all save the East Asian people, who were separately located--were on the second floor of the Hoover Tower. That floor is a little C­-shaped collar of offices that fits snugly against the base of the shaft of the Hoover Tower, where it joins the bottom or main floor. It may be seen if one stands far enough away from the Tower. From the inside, it is accessible only by way of an internal fire stair that for some years has had a sign warning off unauthorized visitors. At the time I worked there, the floor held the offices of the four members of the curatorial staff of the Africa­ Middle East Collection, curatorial assistant, and administrative assistant; two offices of the Slavic/East European curators and admin assistant; the European curator and curatorial assistant; and the offices of the Americas Curator and curatorial assistant. It was a small shop and we all had to do our best to get along with each other and work in some kind of harmony, even if we were all doing quite different things.

The amount of knowledge and linguistic power on the floor was formidable. The European curator was a native German who knew other European languages. Her assistant was fluent in French, Italian, Spanish, Yiddish, and Hebrew, and knew much Polish. The Slavic deputy curator (Joe) was fluent in Russian and comfortable in other languages of his area, with a food knowledge of Hungarian, Finnish, and Estonian as well. In addition, he was fluent in German and Persian and knew some Arabic. He was an expert geographer. Bill was, of course, fluent in Spanish, and used this to full advantage in his work. I was astonished by his fluency in Chinese. I would pass by his office from time to time and hear him having telephone conversations in Chinese and would be amazed. Three of us on the floor: Bill; Joe, the deputy curator of the Slavic/Russian collection; and I, would sometimes muse about the fact that at the same time years past we were all studying Chinese, in different places. Bill was taking it at USC; I can't recall where Joe was studying it; and I studied Chinese at Penn and the Yale Summer Language Institute. Of us three, I have pretty much forgotten the language, through disuse; Jose retains quite a lot; and Bill was totally fluent, fluent enough to conduct academic tours to China and to do other business there. And do those telephone conversations, which is very difficult.

The second floor of the Hoover Tower could be a very hot place to work, since no shade is afforded. Bill's response to the heat was to remove his usual long­sleeved dress shirt--which he customarily wore without a necktie and with his sleeves folded up to the elbows--so as to keep it fresh. He would come to the xerox room from his office in his undershirt and, if I saw him, I would almost invariably address him with something like “Hola, descamisado!” Despite the staleness of this remark over time, Bill maintained his smile and the gleam in his eye. That almost ever-present smile and the eager gleam in his eye were trademarks. Bill was constantly interested in things, and often amused by them. I think the last time I saw him was at the memorial gathering for Ronald Hilton that was held at the Bechtel Center on the Stanford campus, the site of the 2009 WAIS conference. I remember seeing Bill's delight in my retelling of my first real encounter with Prof. Hilton, at a Hoover seminar, when I thought that Prof. Hilton had been unable, in his advanced age, to stay awake and alert as a now­ forgotten speaker droned on, but instead, as soon as the speaker finished and Q&A started, his head shot up and he began to ask a series of probing questions, quoting the speaker from memory (at that point I would have been hard­ pressed even to remember what the speaker had been talking about). I was astonished. Bill enjoyed that true story greatly.

Bill had been a professional French horn player back in Florida and loved classical music. I had studied piano and a couple of other instruments and had the same love of music, and we wound up talking about it many times. Bill was an occasional music critic for the now­ defunct Palo Alto newspaper, the Peninsula Times­ Tribune (and joined me in delighting in the PTT's three to four-inch front page headlines, “Raccoons in raids of terror”). He didn't get to as many performances as he would have liked because of his travel schedule and also because his early rising, noted in one of the postings about him, meant that he was unable to stay up through late­ night performances. But he enjoyed hearing about the concerts, recitals, and operas I went to, and the recordings I listened to. As a critic, Bill received CDs for review. I know that a few of the CDs in my collection are ones that he gave to me when I expressed an interest in them, but I am no longer able to identify them. Bill very often had his office door closed, so that he could concentrate on his archival work or his writing without interruption but also so that he could listen at the same time to stacks of CDs. As for performances, I recall his great interest in my “oral report” about my first visit to Symphony Hall in Boston. I was in the city for a conference but played hooky to attend a BSO concert, in which the orchestra played the Mahler Fifth, preceded by a Haydn symphony that curiously had a horn or trumpet call that was almost the same as in the Mahler. Bill couldn't quite accept my comments--which I still hold--that Mahler had been in need of a ruthless editor. On another occasion, we were in agreement, about a production of The Magic Flute be a local opera company, put on in the 1990s after the revelation of some unsavory activities in the White House. The director of the production had had the Sarastro walking among his Masonic followers, stroking their faces and chins. I can't recall which of us delighted the other by noting that Sarastro had been depicted as Bill Clinton.

Bill and I had lunch together, when I was at the Hoover, but on all too rare occasions. His favorite lunch seems to have been to rush over to the Thai place that had opened up on campus, grab a bowl of soup, and rush back to his office and eat at his desk. Someone, in a posting, noted his energy, and it was always evident, even if he was going to get lunch or a snack. I don't know if Bill was a runner, but he certainly looked like one.

Over the past few years, Bill and I had been in all too infrequent e­mail contact, sharing complaints and making plans to get together that were never fulfilled. I was always surprised, and envious, to read that someone else had had lunch with him. I had hoped that he and I might get together again, if not at a lunch, than maybe at a Hoover gathering (although I seem no longer to be on the guest lists). For him, it was a good four-hour drive from his new home to the Stanford area, so it was not something he was going to do every day. Well, in any event, now that lunch, that get­ together, will never take place.

I will miss Bill Ratliff very much. May he rest in peace.

JE comments:  Thank you, Ed.  A touching tribute from a good friend.  Bill Ratliff must have known every Asian restaurant within a twenty-mile radius of the Hoover Tower!  I too always wondered if Bill was a runner, as he was constantly in motion and in extraordinary physical shape.  This is just one of the many things I regret not asking him.

It's hard to believe he's already been gone for ten days.

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  • Bill Ratliff: Some Reminiscences (Charles Ridley, USA 04/21/14 2:47 PM)
    Ed Jajko (21 April) has written an excellent remembrance of Bill Ratliff. Bill and I met when we were on the Hoover staff, from which I departed in 1973. Over the years, we kept up a long-term schedule of monthly lunchtime meetings at various Palo Alto ethnic restaurants, finally settling on the Thai restaurant in "Midtown" fairly close to my residence. We shared interests in both China studies and music as well as our Hoover ties. I could never get him to show me the sonata he had written as a music student, but I was a religious reader of the reviews of local concerts he used to write for The Times Tribune. His reviews, as you can well imagine, were excellent.

    I mourn his loss both as a superb scholar and as loyal friend.

    JE comments:  I've just spent an hour looking through every camera card I shot in the last eight years, and unfortunately I didn't find a single photograph of Bill.  I guess I always assumed there would be a next time for pictures.   A request for WAISers:  if you have some Bill images, send them my way and I'll assemble an album.

    A superb scholar and loyal friend:  I cannot think of a better way to describe Bill Ratliff.

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