Remembering Amelia “Chita” Fry Davis, 1925-2009

Amelia Fry interviewing Sara Bard Field, poet and suffragist, 1963Friends and colleagues of The Bancroft Library's Regional Oral History Office will be saddened to learn of the death of Amelia Fry Davis late in December 2009 in Carmel Valley after a long illness. Known to the oral history world as Chita Fry, she joined ROHO in its infancy in 1959. For the next twenty-five years she designed and conducted comprehensive projects exploring significant topics in California history and their interaction with regional and national issues. Working closely with Willa Baum, ROHO director for forty-three years, Chita was active in the founding of the Oral History Association and the development and direction of oral history throughout the country.  

Chita Fry pursued new subject areas in oral history with an unerring sense of their historical value, combined with interviewing skills and a winning charm that turned interviewees into lasting friends of ROHO.  Early in her career at ROHO an interviewee introduced her to his neighbor, Newton Drury, former director of both the National Park Service and the California State Parks and president of the Save-the-Redwoods League. Subsequent oral histories with Drury cemented their friendship and introduced Chita to key figures in the world of conservation, leading to interviews on the National Park Service and a major project on forest history. Her work set the stage for ROHO’s continuing strong emphasis on natural resources, land use, and the environmental movement.

Drury and Horace Albright, also a former director of the National Park Service and ROHO interviewee, played an important role in launching another of Chita Fry’s landmark projects: the documentation of the governorship of Earl Warren. The idea blossomed, according to Willa Baum’s oral history, at the fiftieth anniversary of the fabled UC Class of 1912, of which Warren, Drury, and Albright were all members. Drury and Albright worked for two years to persuade Warren to give his blessing for the project, which he finally did, as Willa relates, in an unexpected meeting with Albright on the summit of Mount Olympus in Greece. Chita and Willa struggled for another five years to assemble funding for a comprehensive ten-year project on the Earl Warren Era in California. Under Chita’s imaginative direction, she and her interviewing team conducted nearly 150 wide-ranging interviews with political and governmental figures, labor and civil rights leaders, and Warren’s friends and advisors. It became the model for subsequent projects on the Pat Brown, Goodwin Knight, and Ronald Reagan governorships and led to ROHO interviews on labor, social welfare, the law, and women in politics. The long, blue row of bound interview transcripts on California public policy issues, all of which are now digitized and available via the Internet, continues to provide irreplaceable insights and is still widely used by students and scholars. 

After an interview in 1961 with poet, social radical, and suffragist Sara Bard Field, Chita developed a seminal project on the Suffragists, focusing on the work of the militant National Women’s Party and the campaign for women’s right to vote.  An extended oral history with party founder Alice Paul in 1972 and 1973 was the catalyst for her final work, a biography of Alice Paul.  She moved to Washington DC in the early 1980s, following her second marriage to Rex Davis, the retired director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and a high school friend from Oklahoma with whom she had fortuitously reconnected. In Washington she continued her research and writing, working in the archives of the National Women's Party and Paul's personal papers. Alice Paul: Claiming Power by J.D. Zahniser and Amelia R. Fry is now available

Photo of Amelia Fry, 1970Chita retained her connection with ROHO, becoming the eyes and ears of the office in Washington, continuing to assist in project development, and serving as a key advisor to Willa Baum. Throughout her career, Fry taught oral history institutes and workshops and spoke frequently at the Oral History Association’s annual colloquium and at other professional organizations, as well as publishing numerous articles on her work and larger issues in oral history in a wide variety of journals.  Her busy life included active interest in the lives of her three sons, Gary, Randy, and Byron Fry, as well as a lifelong love of music.  Son Gary recalls, “Mom played the violin and even had a small violin scholarship to the University of Oklahoma. Two of her three sons grew up to be professional musicians and composers. One still is. Her love for music and her determination to expose us to all types of it was a constant presence in our lives. It remains perhaps her largest legacy to us.”

A memorial program for Amelia Fry Davis will be held January 30 at noon in the Women’s Faculty Club on the Berkeley campus. She will be buried in the Arlington National Cemetery alongside her husband.

Gabrielle Morris and Ann Lage
January 15, 2010









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