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In Focus

Stories Behind the Documents

Michael Gillette of Texas

By Amanda Sigler | HUMANITIES, January/February 2004 | Volume 25, Number 1

Inside Michael L. Gillette's garage sits the same car he drove in high school--a 1963 Chevrolet convertible in mint condition. As the new executive director of the Texas Council for the Humanities, Gillette plans to turn his penchant for preserving toward marking the thirtieth anniversary of public humanities in his home state.

"We want to use this opportunity to raise the organization's visibility in the public mind," Gillette says. "One of the things I would like to do is make sure that the records of the organization are archived in a repository so that in another thirty years researchers can have a record of what we've done."

The council has produced a number of projects, including more than 2,860 programs and more than seventy-five exhibitions that travel to local libraries and historical societies. Gillette and his staff use electronic pushpins on a Texas map to indicate places where grants have gone. "I hope that in the end of our exploration we will come up with some very compelling programs that we can replicate around the state," Gillette says.

The native Texan brings his experience in archival work. While attending the University of Texas at Austin and Louisiana State University, Gillette collected the oral histories of Huey Long's campaign workers, New Deal policy makers, and Texas Civil Rights activists. His research led him to Heman Sweatt, the first African American admitted to the University of Texas Law School.

"One of the questions that I asked Heman Sweatt, was how his family responded to the news that he had volunteered to be the guinea pig and file a lawsuit against the state of Texas," Gillette says. Sweatt describes his father convening a family dinner. "It was a risk for all of them. They were exposing themselves to possible retaliation," Gillette says. "It's a very dramatic story about how the family rallied around the family member who had decided to take on the state of Texas."

From 1976 to 1991, Gillette directed the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library's Oral History Program. "You learned a lot about how Lyndon Johnson's mind worked, and how he was as persuasive and effective as he was," Gillette says. Gillette recalls interviewing a senior U.S. senator about how he persuaded Johnson to put him on a particular committee.

"As he described his eventual success in gaining a seat on the Armed Services Committee, it suddenly dawned on me--and, I think, on the senator at the same time --that Johnson's real motivation had been to get him off another committee," Gillette says. "It was clear that Johnson had rewarded him with one committee assignment not so much to reward him, but because he was an obstruction on another committee."

While at the LBJ Library, Gillette conducted more than six hundred interviews for the oral history project. He also directed the Presidential Election Project at UT-Austin's Lyndon B. Johnson School of Affairs from 1988 to 1991, conducting four hundred interviews with participants from the 1988 election campaign.

"Oral history, for studying politics and studying legislation, is really a marvelous tool because so much of the real transactions are conducted one-to-one in person rather than in meetings where everything is written down," Gillette says. As a result, there may be no record of the meetings in which significant things happen, and that is where oral history steps in.

But Gillette does not downplay the importance of written documents. As the director of the Center for Legislative Archives at the National Archives from 1991to 2003, he and his colleagues made facsimiles of Thomas Jefferson's letters to Congress and distributed them, along with supplementary materials, to schools. Jefferson's letters are particularly appropriate for the classroom, Gillette says, because of Jefferson's compelling prose and powerful message.

"When you think about what we have left from Thomas Jefferson, we don't have his voice as we do modern presidents'," Gillette says. "We have his image in paintings and drawings; we have his architecture, as seen through Monticello, the University of Virginia, and other things. But principally we have his words. And his words are wonderful."