Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Phil Brigandi: Orange County Archivist

In the wake of Phil Brigandi's death, the Orange County Historical Society presented a tribute to him on Jan. 9, 2020, focusing on his Orange County historical work. At least 300 people attended. Each of the five speakers that night (Mark Hall-Patton, Art Hansen, myself, Stephanie George and Eric Plunkett) focused on a different segement of Phil's life and work, combined with other favorite memories. This was my contribution -- focusing primarily on Phil's time as County Archivist. My more comprehensive tribute to Phil and his life is posted here.

I first met Phil Brigandi in 2003, when he was the newly minted Orange County Archivist. I’d been trying to get into the Archives for years to do research, but it had closed in the wake of the County bankruptcy. The County Library handed the Archives over to the County Clerk-Recorder's Office, which didn't immediately reopen the place either. But in Spring 2003, Tom Daly was elected the new Clerk-Recorder and he made re-staffing the Archives and providing access to these publically-owned records one of his first priorities. During the search for a new archivist, Jim Sleeper told Tom that Phil was more than ready to return from his 13-years of exile in Hemet.

Phil had done some work at UCI’s Special Collections and had some training in the technical/library science end of archival practice, which added to his already vast understanding of Orange County history and how the records could be best utilized. He was the perfect man for the job.

I visited the Archives the first week it was reopened and met Phil when he was just figuring out what he had. The library folks had left no finding aids or clues – Just room after room of often cryptically-marked boxes. Within minutes of meeting me, Phil took me on a tour through the stacks. We peered into boxes, trying to figure out what was where – a process we would repeat for years until we got most of it reasonably organized and labeled. We probably talked for an hour or so, and then I sat down with some files he’d pulled for me on Googie architecture and early Santa Ana attorneys.  It was a good day and I enjoyed talking history with Phil, but figured that was it until the next time I had research to do.

But a few weeks later, I got a call from him saying, “This is not a one-person job, and it isn’t working to have random county employees assigned as my assistant. I need someone who cares about this stuff and who wants to learn. How’d you like to come work for me?” 

I didn’t ask what it paid or what the hours were. I just said yes. And I’ve been there ever since. I’d been doing local history projects since high school but never imagined that a paying gig might exist. 

The five years I worked for Phil were the best education I could have received anywhere. And I’m not talking about the basic archival practice stuff, although I learned that too. This was not a file clerk job, and as Phil often told me, “You’re doing the exact same job as me – just playing the tune in a different key.” Phil taught me how everything fit together. He taught historical context. He taught me how to see the physical environment around us with the eyes of a historian and to look for details others would miss. He taught me not just how to be a historian but also why. 

He showed me how to process collections, create finding aids, handle materials, encapsulate documents, read topo maps and conduct reference interviews. He taught me to keep my ear to the ground for historical materials that needed to be saved. He taught me that thoughtful accuracy was always infinitely more important than meeting an arbitrary deadline. And he taught me that sharing materials and knowledge was the only way to fly – as opposed to hoarding it or putting up barriers to public access. More than once he told me, “Treating something like a precious treasure and making it inaccessible isn’t much better than treating it like trash.” 

He also taught me that the individual historians, the old families, the historical institutions like the Archives, and the historical societies like OCHS were all intertwined and interdependent on one another as part of a larger historical community. They might somehow survive independent of one another, but none would ever really succeed or be relevant without the others. “Local history,” he often said, “is a small pond.” And the bigger the pond, the more patrons, the more people helping each other, the more forward momentum for everyone, and the more visibility for the kind of historical endeavors that make Archives worth having in the first place.

Phil approached history as a calling, not just a job or even a career. Getting paid for the work was, at most, an afterthought. Phil realized he had a gift and he used that gift to preserve history for future generations, spread the gospel of community, and help others. Like most of us, he was happiest doing what he did best.
Phil was not just a great mentor, but also the best boss you could ever hope to have. Too many government employees operate primarily from a place of fear and over-reverence for the fickle whims of elected officials. Phil, on the other hand, had a healthy disregard for such nonsense and ran the Archives for the betterment of the County, the public, and local history.

Our desks were about five feet apart and we more or less had a running conversation at all times, no matter what we were working on. Every day was interesting – in a good way. Having worked in the gulag-like veal fattening pens of corporate Irvine, this was so refreshing. It was a delight to come to work every day and our patrons were the main beneficiaries of our positive attitudes.

Phil brought in about 40 collections to the Archives, including such gems at the Knott’s Berry Farm Collection, a century-worth of naturalization records, the County’s bankruptcy records, the records of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station reuse battle, and the papers of historian and court reporter Lecil Slayback and industrialist Adolph Schope.

As Archivist, Phil was a jack of all trades and master of most. Whatever the task at hand, Phil dove right in – From sorting records to installing map cases to helping patrons make sense of arcane records that somehow held the answers to their questions.

And he made everything fun. As he liked to say, “Too many people mistake being serious for being solemn.” He was deadly serious about his work, but he was hardly ever solemn. The Orange County Archives was a fun place to be, good work was being done, stress levels were near zero, Phil was sharing his brilliance with anyone who needed a hand, and researchers always told us how much they looked forward to their visits. It was truly a golden age, and I was so lucky to have been part of it.

An 2004 L.A. Times article hinted at the flavor of things, describing how Phil approached his work “with the enthusiasm of a kid on Christmas morning,” and how “with smiles, the archivist and his assistant, Chris Jepsen, interrupt each other as they tell of a recent visit from [a patron] in search of clues about her grandparents.”

Thanks to his sense of humor, even the most mindless of tasks – like a full day of reordering jumbled records to match old indices – could end up being fun. We did just that one day, and made a game of reading off funny names as we came to them. Once one of us read the name, the other had to briefly describe the person who should have such a name. By the end of an entire day we were nearly done with the project, having organized many boxes of documents, but we were really tired and acting accordingly punchy.  One of the last names I came to was “Fanny Sparks,” which I almost couldn’t say out loud because I was already laughing. But Phil made out what I’d said and immediately announced that Fanny Sparks was “one of the side effects listed on the warning labels of Olestra potato chips.” We both laughed until we were actually in pain. We had to go to separate rooms out of earshot of each other so we wouldn’t keep egging each other on. It probably took a good twenty minutes to stop laughing over that stupid joke and maybe the whole evening to recover. But we’d whipped through another large project – accurately and in a short period of time – and we’d had a hell of a time doing it. Things were like that with Phil.

Phil never lost track of the underlying reasons the Archives existed and he made pragmatic decisions based on a great deal of knowledge, intelligence and not-so-common sense. He threw himself into his work wholeheartedly and was exceptionally good at his job. He was there for all the right reasons.

The Archives were also scrupulously tidy and well-organized on his watch. We always knew where everything was, and – except for the place we called “The Evil Closet” – any corner of the stacks was presentable for tours at any moment. His own apartment was similarly organized to the n-th degree. Again, he was the perfect guy to hire as Archivist.
Although he had his reasons, I never quite forgave Phil for leaving the Archives when he did. But Phil was – as his scouting friends like to point out – extremely stubborn. I spent about six months trying to talk him out of quitting. I pointed out that he had near total autonomy in how he ran the Archives and that the job gave him not only pay and medical benefits but also great visibility and a bully pulpit for local history. But once Phil made up his mind about something it was a done deal. Ultimately, he did the one thing he’d always told ME never to do: He jumped before he had a place to land.

Not a week goes by that I don’t wish Phil had stayed.  Every one of our longtime patrons felt the same. They were heartbroken and so was I. I can only imagine what the County Archives could have accomplished with him still on the team.

Happily, Phil and I remained close friends after he left. We went to the Postcard and Paper Shows together and stopped at a different classic L.A. restaurant for dinner each time. I helped him find homes for Jim Sleeper’s historical materials after Jim’s death. In some ways, he was the older brother I never had. He stopped by often for lunch and I called him often for advice. I probably saw him about once a week in addition to phone calls and emails. Sometimes more. And yet, I deeply regret not spending more time with him in the last few years. With personal matters absorbing much of my time recently, our late night Del Taco brainstorming sessions and weekend expeditions to historic sites or postcard shows were effectively on hiatus. I thought they’d resume when my life calmed down a bit.

Instead, not only am I – like all of us – left grieving – But I’m also left with the shocking realization that the entire map of Orange County historical work has changed completely. No major research project was complete without touching base with Phil to see what he had in the file. He was the one I sent people to with so many questions on so many topics where there simply was no point in turning to any other source. And in the back of my mind, while doing my own writing, I always considered – would this pass muster with Phil? I will always try to hold myself to that standard – but I will never again know if I’ve met it.

Phil conspired with so many of us on so many projects. It’s hard to imagine who else will share our enthusiasm so thoroughly, engage us so thoughtfully, or inspire us to do our best work. Even as we did our own work, he remained our litmus test, gold standard, map, sounding board and ready volunteer.

When I met Phil, there was still a whole pantheon of great local historians we could look up to, from Esther Cramer and Jim Sleeper to Doris Walker and Barbara Milkovich. I was proud to help with whatever meager additions I could bring to table, but I hardly felt essential. But the ranks of those giants dwindled rapidly, and at a relatively young age Phil found himself in the unlikely position of elder statesman. Of course, he was up to the job.

But now, a few of us who are even younger than Phil now face the unthinkable: WE are the ones left holding the torch Phil was handed by Don Meadows and Jim Sleeper and which Terry Stephenson in turn once passed to them. We cannot replace these giants. There will never be another Phil Brigandi. But because we share his mission and because we love him, we will do all we can to keep the flame burning and eventually pass it to yet another generation. In the meanwhile, we have work to do: The work of local history -- The research, the writing, the publishing, the speaking and the sharing. Phil Brigandi isn’t going to do it for us, and neither is anyone else. It is good and rewarding work, but it is hard work nonetheless, and now more than ever we must support each other and our mission.
Photo taken at OCHS' tribute to Phil Brigandi, Jan. 9, 2020.

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