She specializes in Japanese history and is a seventh-generation Californian. He is a pioneering expert in the field of computational linguistics and a first-generation Californian, a migrant from St. Louis. They live in a large house, the interior decorated with a Japanese motif, in Menlo Park.
Lynnae, you have a seven-generation history in this state. Tell me about your family.
Lynnae: My grandfather’s family came from Missouri, the great-great-great-great grandfather’s name was Hugh Harrison Bell. He and his wife and seven children got together covered wagons with several other families, and they made their way across the plains. But something catastrophic happened to them in Utah. I don’t know the details, but I believe they lost some of their animals and maybe even some of the wagons. So they had to walk much of the way into California. My great-great-great-grandmother was 7 years old. She made that walk over the Sierra Nevada. When they arrived they were exhausted. They stopped almost the first place they could, which was Amador County. I think Hugh Harrison Bell was interested in becoming a gold miner but realized the difficulties of doing that. So he became a judge. He had some education, maybe that was rare then. His wife, who was pregnant on this trip, gave birth to a baby in Amador County. And the baby died, and the mother died as well. [Then] Hugh’s youngest child was bitten by a black spider, maybe a black widow, and that child died.
My grandmother’s family was from northern Germany and they came about 10 years later through New York City. I don’t know how they got to California — they didn’t have the Transcontinental Railroad. That side of my family got a land grant, 640 acres, in Escalon, between Stockton and Modesto. Their last name was von Glahn. That land was divided between their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. So by the time I was a child and spent all my summers on this ranch, it only had 26 or 27 acres, and my grandparents lived there.
One of my [other] ancestors lived in Maine. The son, George Farrow, fought in the Civil War, [was] from the little isle of Isleboro, Maine. And he was killed in Virginia in 1862, leaving behind a 20-year-old wife and a tiny baby girl, who then was renamed after him, Georgie Farrow. The wife, I think several years after the war ended, decided there was really no opportunity for her to either meet other men or have any kind of life of her own on this tiny island, so she got on a ship to Panama and crossed Panama on the back of a mule, and then got on a boat and went to Sacramento. Then went inland, where she became a nurse. This was probably about 1867 or 1868. There she met a man and married, and as soon as the Transcontinental Railroad was completed, she took it back to Maine to pick up her little girl, who was now about 10 and living with her grandparents, and took her back to California.
My grandmother, the child of Georgie Farrow, was very interested in her own family history. She collected lots of newspaper articles and documents, and she interviewed people and started to put together a family history, which my mother then continued, and I’ve also continued. I just find it fascinating, to try to understand why people would leave a fairly comfortable set of circumstances and take the chance to go far away and to start all over again. After 1849, [California] was just seen as a land of opportunity. There was land to be had, there was gold to be dug.
David: For a period of time they were giving away sections of land.
Lynnae: You had to pay something for a section of land, but it wasn’t very much. You had to promise to develop the land. If you came from a tiny little village in Germany where land was scarce and there wasn’t much opportunity, this must have seemed like a dream. But why did the Bells leave Missouri to go to California? That I find very hard to understand. I guess the lure of gold brought them. But for somebody to pack up everything, with seven children, and wagons, and make that trip, when they must have known there were all sorts of dangers along the way, and then to suffer what they suffered when they came to California, the loss of wife and baby and small child, I can’t imagine how hard that must have been.
Lynnae (continued): As a small child, I spent all the harvest seasons with my grandparents. They had walnuts. This was my grandparents’ retirement job; they had lived in the Bay Area most of their lives, where my grandfather was a teamster, driving a truck.
My grandparents lost a child in World War II. He was killed in Germany at the very end of the war and they had a lot of animosity towards Germans and to Japanese. [But] my grandparents were really very loving people. In 1950, when I was 5 years old, two Japanese farmers came to live with them during the harvest season. Neither of them spoke any English. My grandparents did not speak Japanese. We lived in a very tiny farmhouse with a very tiny bathroom, just a stall of a shower and toilet.
There were nine people living in that tiny little house with that one bathroom. My grandmother would cook for us all every day, and we would go out and help my grandfather pick up the walnuts. And in the evening we’d all come back. The two Japanese men always slept on the front porch. Every year, from 1950 to 1959, Japanese came to our house to help during the harvest season. And they gave my grandparents amazing gifts. I think they brought their family heirlooms, things like ancient tea ceremony sets, and old masks, and obis that tied kimonos up. From the time I was a small child, I became very interested in Japanese art and textures, and colors and designs.
I never understood why those Japanese farmers came to help us, until I was an undergraduate at Berkeley, and took a course on Japanese history, and came to understand MacArthur completely reorganized Japan after World War II. One of the things he did was take the huge landholdings, and divide them into small units, 20, 30 acres, which were then given to returning soldiers. Part of the fear was Japan would become communist, and if you give soldiers little bits of land, it connects them to capitalism, gives them something to conserve.
But these returning soldiers weren’t farmers! Someone got the idea that Japanese farmers should come to the U.S., live with American farmers. They had no contact with the U.S. and probably had very negative feelings about Americans. I know my family had very negative feelings about Japan.
Having Japanese live with them opened their eyes to many things. They came to understand that people are people no matter where they are from. My grandparents really hated Germans, so much more than the Japanese. When I was in high school, I was an American Field Service student. AFS send me to Germany, to Nuremberg, in 1961. I lived with a German family that I became very close to. The thought I would be going into that [onetime] hotbed of Nazism was really painful for my grandparents. [But] when this German girl came to stay with my family a couple years later, my grandparents received her with their usual graciousness. In a way this was America and California at its best. For all of the tensions, this country historically, over the 20th century, got pretty good at working out ways for different races and groups to come together to understand each other.
I was at Berkeley in 1964. When the Free Speech Movement occurred, there were pickets placed around all of the classes. We were told we shouldn’t cross those lines. I called my father, who was a Republican, and I said, “You’ll never guess what’s going on at Berkeley, but there’s a Free Speech Movement and we’re being encouraged not to go to class.” He said, “You need to go to class.” I called my grandfather, and he said: “You never cross a picket line, you find out what the issues are and you support them.” My grandfather had supported the IWW [Industrial Workers of the World] and the Teamsters’ union and he always felt he couldn’t vote for FDR because FDR was too conservative. He voted for the socialist candidate.
David, your family was in St. Louis. What drew you westward?
David: I’d been to California a couple of times before I came here as a student. I was affected like a lot of people who came to California in the 1950s. It was Disneyland, it was exciting, it was wonderful and beautiful. I first came in 1956. I would have been 8 years old. In those days it was driving across the country on Route 66. California announces itself long before you arrive anywhere. It’s a long stretch across New Mexico and Arizona into California, and the landscape heralds what you’re going to encounter when you drive into California. And I was awake, staring out the car window and drinking it in. Hundreds of miles of it. I saw horizons that seemed to go on forever. Incredible sunsets. Colors on the sand in the desert. Roads that were straight for 50 miles. There was nothing like that in St. Louis. I saw dry expanses. A place without lots of trees and green was new for me. Coming into California, the transformation of the desert scene into the suburban fringes of L.A. was dramatic. Everything was newer then. Even areas considered less attractive today were brand spanking new and beautiful. It was one of the greatest vacations I could possibly have imagined. We drove north on Highway One. These are iconic experiences, to experience Highway One, a gorgeous drive, slow going, but every moment well worth it. Stopping at places along the way, and then hitting the San Francisco Bay Area. We drove into Yosemite. It seemed to me one of the great places of the world.
I was very interested in science, technology, math when I was in high school and even before. For many, many years I had imagined I wanted to go to MIT. It sounded to me like the citadel. It was only very late in the game that a relative of mine, who was a physician here in the Bay Area, called my attention to Stanford. I applied more casually than to other places I applied. I got into MIT. I was headed that way till I began to read the Stanford brochures. At that time it looked to me like the MIT catalog was a lot of stuff I had to do rather than offering me a lot of options with electives and alternative career choices. The Stanford catalog talked about overseas studies and seminars that could be self-directed.
You end up in California at this moment when California becomes the epicenter of the counterculture, student activism, music, poetry, art. Today that’s still part of California mythology — the Summer of Love, etc. What was it like during that period?
David: In retrospect we can appreciate it a lot more than when we went through it. I was not seduced by some of the things that a lot of people found irresistible during that period. I wasn’t over the top about the music scene or the more radical student manifestations, organizations. I was interested in the ideas and explored them, and certainly my sensibilities were in alignment with where that movement was going. It led me to think hard about the war in Vietnam. I became a conscientious objector.
Were you, David, doing computational linguistics at the time?
David: Not during that period. I was interested in chemistry, and ended up with a minor in chemistry. But once I got to the university I discovered so many interesting fields and was bound to explore them all. I wouldn’t say this was typical, but my philosophy was, “Find things you might feel you’re not naturally strong at and study those – that’ll make you stronger. Then indulge yourself in the things you really do like to do.” I ended up doing one undergraduate degree in English lit and another in German intellectual history, simultaneously. And I also did an undergrad degree in mathematical sciences. Stanford offered the opportunity to go to Germany as part of an overseas program. I went as a sophomore and spent six months at a Stanford campus in southern Germany. I learned about a program in Japan and thought, “Wow, I’ll try that too.” That was the program through which I met Lynnae — 1968. She was my teacher.
Why is California so different, for you, from the rest of the country?
David: I think the rise of centers of excellence in California created a momentum and introduced a certain kind of hope. The rise of engineering in Silicon Valley, beginning in the ’30s, and continuing in the Cold War, created a hotbed of activity around science and technology that over time, and through various evolutionary cycles, brought us to where we are today, where the Silicon Valley Olympus is at the forefront of most tech innovations that we see happening around the world. It’s good for the economy of the place, but it also creates its own mythology. That mythology has not been specifically partisan. It’s not ideological, it’s meritocratic. And while a meritocracy can create winners and losers, there’s something fundamentally decent about the idea that people with talent can find a place where they can spread their wings. In general good things happen when you get a lot of people together who have that attitude.
What was great about Stanford, particularly in the ’70s and early ’80s, was that people were not locked into disciplinary silos. Individuals could cross disciplinary boundaries and engage others to look at hybrid solutions. People in computer science were sitting in on philosophy courses. People in philosophy were sitting in on operations research courses. This made it possible for many different perspectives to be brought to bear on things that were otherwise very difficult if not intractable problems. That’s a spirit that lives on today.
At Stanford you had the feeling that anything you wanted to do was okay, just do it. And the administration made you feel you were capable enough that you could find out what is right through your own devices. “You don’t need us to tell you. We believe all you guys are going to be capable; get to know each other, explore ideas, we’re not going to tell you what you need to do.” That was refreshing for me. That’s the environment we need to create socially, culturally in the U.S., that we’ve lost.