Meet John Graham, Cole Valley's Oral Historian

For 15 years, Cole Valley resident John Graham has worked as an oral historian with the Veterans History Project (VHP), a program that collects and preserves stories from wartime veterans.

Over the course of his 15 years with VHP, Graham has become the project’s lead West Coast contributor, traveling the region to interview vets who served in World War II. “Once I get them talking, I don’t really steer the conversation,” he told Hoodline. 

Graham meets his subjects through personal contacts and referrals, establishing a rapport with each vet so they’ll speak freely about their experiences.

“It sometimes takes six months to a year to get a veteran’s trust,” said Graham, who also works as a waiter and floor manager at Comstock Saloon. In many cases, he meets subjects via a third party who can vouch for him. “A lot of the time, it’s a bartender.”

Oral historian John Graham.

Graham discovered his interest in oral history while working at UCSF Parnassus Heights, where he ran the weekly paper. “That’s when I started using a tape recorder to interview people, “ he said, starting with a co-worker whose military career spanned two wars and a stint with the Foreign Service. “I asked him to do a 45-minute interview, but I soon realized that tapes weren’t going to work, so I bought a digital recorder."

Because of the time, travel and effort that goes into crafting veterans’ interviews, he now markets his services as an oral historian for families and individuals. And a mentor is advising him on how to create a nonprofit that would allow him to work full-time as an oral historian.

In the meantime, he’s launched a GoFundMe page to help cover the costs of compiling veterans’ histories. Because of the travel, research and materials involved, each history costs him about $300 to produce.

“If I could raise the money, I could walk away with my health care, teach other people to do it, and get an army of people going,” said Graham. Veterans from World War II and Korea are now in their 70s and 80s, so there’s a sense of urgency. “Plus, if you pitch it to 10 people, you’ll only get one."

Graham said he’s already had several private commissions in and around Cole Valley, from people who hired him to interview aging family members. Although most of the people he talks to have lived long lives, he’s also done oral histories for people who’ve barely reached middle age. “There’s always some aspect of the culture that can be discussed,” he said.

Hippies who arrived in the Summer of Love and “people who were here in the '70s and '80s for the punk rock scene” have riveting stories to share, said Graham, just like residents who remember the beginning of the HIV epidemic, or the '90s tech boom.

After a multi-round interview session, he creates an audio CD or shares edited, high-quality sound files. “I’m always looking for new clients,” he said.

“Everyone has a story to tell,” said Graham. ”As much as they think they don’t, they really do.”

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Meet john graham cole valley s oral historian