by Bonnie Mager, OLLI member
Harry Kreisler has a lot to say. But his unique talent is in finding out what other people have to say. During the three decades he has been with Berkeley’s Institute of International Studies, he has conducted 465 interviews, and plans to continue doing about 40 a year. His subjects come from all walks of life and nationalities--the people who influence and guide world affairs: diplomats, politicians, artists, scientists, writers, and academics.
He and his brother were raised by a loving, hard-working mother in a close-knit Jewish community in Galveston, Texas. Bright, curious, and perceptive, he became skillful with people and loved learning about other people’s lives. He did well in his public high school and earned a scholarship to Brandeis University.
After earning a degree in political science at Brandeis, he enrolled in graduate school at UC Berkeley. While attending Cal, he worked at the Institute for International Studies doing outreach and organizing speakers for various programs. One day in 1982, as the Executive Director of the institute, he was having lunch with three Nobel Prize winners and a US ambassador. He was struck with the idea that he making these conversations available in a public forum. Soon he was doing interviews of the internationally prominent in front of a video camera. At first these one-hour shows were broadcast on public access cable TV, but when the Internet became widely available the shows were seen by a vastly wider audience. He says, "We rode the waves of the media" about adapting to the world of the Web.
Kreisler found that he was comfortable in front of a camera. His skills at interviewing had grown from his natural curiosity and charm with people. While he was growing up, he avidly watched Walter Cronkite’s "You Are There" and Edward R. Murrow’s "Person to Person," and absorbed a sense of style and ease from those shows. To prepare for the interviews: he reads the books and articles his guests have written and acquaints himself with relevant issues and policies.
"I want to navigate the conversation so the audience understands a set of ideas and how those ideas were crafted," he says. Wanting to know about the life, not just the work, he often asks questions of a more personal nature, a strategy that he has found disarms his guests and puts them at ease. His purpose is never to interrogate or confront. His guests love him.
His interviews are broadcast as Conversations with History on Friday evenings on Echostar channel 9412 and on the YouTube website, where there is an archive of over 300 interviews. Anyone can watch and listen to them by going to www.YouTube.com and searching for Conversations with History.
He is looking forward to teaching another series for OLLI and plans to follow essentially the same format he has used in his several previous OLLI classes: he will show an interview for the first hour and then discuss and answer questions for the second hour. Because of the scope of the interviews to choose from, he can focus on one of many possible themes. Whatever is chosen, it will enlighten and enliven his class.