Spring 2017 /Hidden Pomona/

Hidden Pomona

Saahil Desai ’16 and Kevin Tidmarsh ’16 set out to shine a light on some important but little-known chapters in Pomona College’s past. The rest, as they say, is history.
Winston Dickson 1904 (in bowler hat), Pomona’s first Black graduate, chats with members of the Class of 1906 football team. See “Strangers in a Strange Land,” page 30. (From the Boynton Collection of the Claremont Colleges Digital Library)

Winston Dickson 1904 (in bowler hat), Pomona’s first Black graduate, chats with members of the Class of 1906 football team. See “Strangers in a Strange Land,” page 30. (From the Boynton Collection of the Claremont Colleges Digital Library)

It begins with two alternating voices, each carefully modulated for audio recording:

“I’m Saahil Desai.”

“I’m Kevin Tidmarsh.”

“And this is ‘Hidden Pomona.’”

The podcast’s signature burst of electric piano music swells, then vamps in the background as Tidmarsh picks up the thread: “Hidden Pomona is a podcast about the forgotten, obscure and overlooked parts of Pomona College’s history. We’ll be releasing episodes every other Friday until the end of April. Stick with us as we uncover the hidden history of our school.”

The theme music fades, and the story begins…

Excerpt from Episode 1: Strangers in a Strange Land

Desai: “… For the next three months, we’ll be investigating the questions about our school that we’ve had since orientation. What were relations like between the College’s founders and the original inhabitants of the land?

Read more Excerpt from Episode 1.

Looking back, the two classmates and friends agree that the idea of a podcast first came to them in the fall of their senior year, in Professor Susan McWilliams’ class on W.E.B. Du Bois and his famous book, The Souls of Black Folk. McWilliams recalls that both Kevin Tidmarsh ’16 and Saahil Desai ’16 were excited about their final projects, which involved a journalistic approach that dovetailed with their career interests. For Tidmarsh, it was research into the history of the Black population of his hometown, South Bend, Ind. It was Desai’s project, however—digging deeply into the life of Pomona’s first Black student, Winston Dickson, Class of 1904—that would open their eyes to new possibilities.

As he uncovered lost details from Dickson’s time at Pomona and Harvard Law School and his subsequent career as an attorney in his segregated hometown of Houston, Texas, Desai was struck by the relevance of this little-known story to Pomona students today. “As a student of color at Pomona, it’s hard to feel like you have a stake in its history,” he explains. “It’s much easier, I think, to connect to your school and feel like you belong there when you see other people who have done that in past decades and past generations. So I think doing that research project made me really more connected to the school, but it also made me realize that I wish these stories were more accessible at a broader level.”

As the students discussed these ideas with McWilliams, a plan began to take form that would lead them in a new and wholly unexpected direction. “Somehow, we got to talking about how Pomona is a place where—especially compared to other elite institutions—we have very little written-down history,” McWilliams remembers. “And so, those casual conversations, as they do sometimes at a place like Pomona, became a formal proposal for them to do an independent study—where they would take what they learned in four years of politics classes and their education more generally and do this podcast about hidden episodes in Pomona’s history, especially those that had something to do with what we in political science would call the political development of the institution.”

Excerpt from Episode 2: When Carnegie Was Bombed

Tidmarsh: “… The bomb was placed in Government Professor Lee [’48] McDonald’s mailbox, which led some to question whether the bomber was targeting him directly. Claire McDonald, Lee’s wife and a Pomona alum from 1947, remembers how scary of a time it was for them.”

Read more Excerpt from Episode 2.

And so, in the last semester of both students’ four years at Pomona, Hidden Pomona was born. Its purpose was simple—to tell obscure but relevant stories from Pomona’s past in the friendly style of radio journalism. “It’s almost like you’re sitting someone down in a coffee shop or in a bar or whatever and telling them the story—it’s just that you can’t see the other person,” Tidmarsh says. “You don’t know who the other person is, but you still want to try to capture that same sort of intimacy with the listener. So that was one hundred percent what we were trying to do—just tell stories.”

Their first episode grew directly out of Desai’s research paper, focusing on Pomona’s early students of color. The next two—on the bombing of the Politics Department in w Carnegie Hall in the late ’60s and the relationship between Pomona College’s founders and their Native American predecessors in the Claremont area—were topics that had long intrigued them both. The final two episodes—examining Pomona’s secret society known as Mufti and relating the story of the Japanese-American students at Pomona during the World War II-era internment—were developed on the fly.

“It wasn’t like we had a set-in-stone schedule from the beginning,” Tidmarsh recalls. “And it was great to have Professor McWilliams be so flexible with what we were trying to do. She was basically just like, ‘Hey, if you have a good idea, go out and do it.’” As a result, he says, they felt free to follow their own curiosity. “And we figured that, hey, if we’re wondering about this, there’s probably a good number of other people at Pomona who are wondering the same thing,” he adds.

McWilliams describes her own role in the process as a mix of sounding board and cheerleader.

“I’ll tell you what I told their parents at graduation,” she says with a laugh, “which is that in some ways, it was the easiest independent study ever to supervise. They would come to my office, sketch out this elaborate plan for an episode. I would ask a couple of questions, but they knew what they were doing, so mostly, I said, ‘Yep, sounds good to me.’ And they’d come back two weeks later with an episode and plans for the next one. It really was probably the most independent independent study I’ve ever supervised, which is really a tribute to how competent and talented they were.”

Hidden Pomona creators Kevin Tidmarsh ’16 (left) and Saahil Desai ’16

Hidden Pomona creators Kevin Tidmarsh ’16 (left) and Saahil Desai ’16

But if they made it look easy at the time, today they remember their struggles and failures as clearly as their triumphs. Though both had some journalistic experience, having written for the student newspaper, The Student Life, neither student had ever tackled anything so complex or demanding as a podcast. For each of the five episodes, there was in-depth research to be done, interviews to be conducted, scripts to be written and rewritten, music to be chosen, voice-overs to be perfected, final edits to be completed, deadlines to be met, and through it all, a range of new technical details to be mastered.

Excerpt from Episode 3: The Place Below Snowy Mountain

Desai: “… By the time that some of the early founders of Pomona College arrived in Claremont, much of the Tongva population had been decimated by a major smallpox outbreak in 1862, a generation before the College’s founding. After the outbreak, the population of the Tongva in the area fell to around 4,000, a fraction of what it once was.

Read more Excerpt from Episode 3.

“There were definitely new skills we had to develop along the way,” Desai says. “When I’m listening to them now, I realize how the episodes progressed in quality. There was definitely a big learning curve that we had to overcome.”

“Yeah,” Tidmarsh agrees. “Right around episode three is when I can start listening to them and not feel totally ashamed of the editing.”

The high-water mark of their work that spring, they agree, was their fourth episode—focusing on Mufti, the decades-old secret society known for papering the campus late at night with small slips of glue-backed paper known as burgers, bearing succinct little messages full of double entendres, sly jokes and cryptic allusions to the most current campus controversies, from grade inflation to the difficulty of getting ice in the dining room.

“The research there was the most ambitious,” Desai says. “We definitely went into it having no idea whether it would all materialize. That was really scary at first, but everything came together. We put a lot of time into that, and it all really kind of came together at the last minute.” One of the things he learned from that episode, he says, was: Never stop hunting for new information. “I’m just glad that w we kept on researching through the entire process and didn’t give up at any point.”

In fact, they were about halfway through recording the episode when new information forced them to start all over. But as a result of their persistence, the finished product included the first-ever recorded interviews with members of the secret society itself, as well as a revealing discussion of the group’s eccentric induction process with Conor O’Rourke ’03, whose effort to join the group was ultimately interrupted by graduation.

Excerpt from Episode 4: Catch Us If You Can

Tidmarsh: “… Joshua Tremblay, the editor of TSL in fall 2003 actually did a ride-along with two Mufti members for a night, and they told him that most of the 20-odd members at the time had either been approached by an active member or caught them in the act.

Read more Excerpt from Episode 4.

After the episode aired, the secret group even acknowledged Hidden Pomona in one of its signature burgers, with the comment: “Mufti Saalutes Hidden Tidbits: Catch Us If You Conor!”

“That was great,” Tidmarsh recalls. “I never would’ve thought as a first-year I would’ve been name-checked by Mufti before I graduated.”

That burger may have been the oddest bit of feedback they received, but it was far from the first or last. “Initially, I wasn’t sure how many people on campus, how many students would be interested in it,” Desai recalls. “So it was satisfying that there were a lot of students that came up to us and told us that they really enjoyed listening to it, which was a nice thing to hear.”

They also heard from a number of alumni as the podcasts were passed from friend to friend on social media. “Our audience just kept getting bigger and bigger with each episode,” Tidmarsh says. “I think the biggest one was probably the Mufti episode.”

Looking back at what they learned during that frenetic final semester, the things that stand out in their minds aren’t the technical details they mastered, but less tangible lessons in project management and persistence. “I think the biggest thing that we learned,” Tidmarsh says, “was probably how to take a super ambitious project like Hidden Pomona and make it manageable—break it down into steps and processes that in the end lead to a finished product.”

The project also gave their fledgling careers an unexpected boost. After graduation, Desai was accepted for a highly competitive internship with the NPR news program Morning Edition, after which he moved on to his current job as an editor with the Washington Monthly, a political magazine in the nation’s capital. After taking some time off due to an illness in his family, Tidmarsh applied for and won the same NPR internship that Desai had just vacated.

“I think it’s definitely paid off way more than I thought it would, honestly,” Desai says. “I didn’t do this project for a semester with the idea that, ‘Oh, I’m going to do it just so I can get a job or it can lead to some career opportunities,’ but it’s been so helpful for that, I think, for both of us.”

Excerpt from Episode 5: Farewell to Pomona

Desai: “… By now, we can accept as historical fact that the Japanese internment happened in the United States, and most people agree that it’s one of the darkest periods in American history.

Read more Excerpt from Episode 5.

Without Hidden Pomona, both students say, that sought-after internship would probably have gone to other applicants with more impressive résumés. “I had been editor of TSL but that only gets you so far,” Tidmarsh says. “And being able to say that you have experience putting together an ambitious audio project—that’s big. That definitely was something that I think they were looking for.”

For her part, McWilliams considers the project a perfect conclusion to a Pomona education. “I thought it was one of those projects that are a testament to liberal arts education—where the two of them, at the end of college, put a lot of things together that they’d learned and came up with this interesting and innovative project that made a serious contribution to their community. And so, I was very proud of them.”

Today, a year after the last of the five episodes was released, all five remain available to listeners online on the podcast-hosting site SoundCloud, as well as on iTunes and Google Play. They’ve also become an official part of Pomona history, in both the Pomona College Archives and the special collections of the Library of The Claremont Colleges, which also plans to offer them for download.

That kind of availability was exactly what Hidden Pomona’s creators had in mind.

“That was one hundred percent an intention of the project,” Tidmarsh says, “so that people 20, 30 years from now can use this for their own research and sort of work off the threads of what we have already done.”

It ends as it began, with vamping theme music and two calmly alternating voices.

“Thank you for listening.”

“I’m Saahil Desai.”

“And I’m Kevin Tidmarsh. And this is Hidden Pomona.”

To listen to any of the five podcasts, search for Hidden Pomona at soundcloud.com, iTunes or Google Play.