By Robert J. Chandler
and Anne M. Hall
Historical Services, Wells Fargo Bank
Reprinted from the Summer 2006 issue
of the California Historian
Irene showing her husband, Aubrey, the San Francisco
Wells Fargo History Room which she had created. Aubrey was a noted
historian with the State Department of Parks and is especially remembered
for Old Town Sacramento.
A Wells Fargo Bank
publication summed up Mary Irene Simpson Neasham (1916-2006) concisely as
“The First Lady of History.” She was unforgettable. Her small stature belied
an immense talent. Irene tallied many presidential “firsts” — first woman
president of the Conference of California Historical Societies, 1963; first
woman president of the California Historical Society, 1970; and first woman
sheriff of the San Francisco Corral of Westerners, 1989.
Irene’s father, David Simpson, was one of
six younger brothers who immigrated from Ballymena, County Antrim, Ireland;
the eldest brother inherited the family farm. David became the proprietor of
a successful clothing business on the San Francisco Peninsula and married a
Danish colleen, Marie. Irene arrived in 1916, and Robert in 1920.
Following Irene’s graduation in 1937 from
Stanford University, she took secretarial courses, and in 1938 she landed in
the advertising department at Wells Fargo Bank & Union Trust Company.
The Japanese sneak attack on Pearl
Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941,
became an opportunity for Irene to
sharpen her secretarial skills, reveal more of her talents and see the world
— or part of it.
1942 she became part of the first class of Women Appointed for Voluntary
Emergency Service (WAVES), and the Navy dispatched her to Smith College in
Northampton, Massachusetts. “After three months at Smith College and a
commission,” Irene said, “I was put in charge of an LMD — Large Mahogany
quarterdeck of her first command, Irene demonstrated mastery of her
political science major from Stanford University. “One of the important
things I learned at Smith was to request duty in New York,” she recalled.
“Of course, I was promptly shipped, as hoped, to California.”
She served on Treasure Island, handling
sensitive documents, with authority to wear a sidearm. Off duty, she lived
at home with her family, took them to great meals at the Treasure Island
Officers’ Club, and rewarded Dad with extra gasoline ration coupons.
Following Irene’s discharge from the Navy
in 1946, she fortunately returned to Wells Fargo’s advertising department.
Manager Jerry Wickland also ran the museum.
Wells Fargo was a Gold Rush company and
had long been interested in its history. It exhibited a large display of
relics at Chicago’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 and then again at San
Francisco’s 1894 Mid-Winter Fair. Thirty-five years later in 1927, Mavis
Grove began assembling historical materials at the same time the bank
acquired Wickland’s collection, which included the stagecoach currently on
tours and public research began in 1935 at the headquarters at Market and
Montgomery streets. Now in 1946, Wickland, perhaps recalling how former
naval officer Louis McLane rebuilt Wells Fargo & Co. after the financial
panic of 1855, quickly and appropriately placed Irene in charge of the
she was, as a bank publication described her, “an artifacts collector,
historical researcher, bibliophile, curator, consultant, public speaker,
historian, librarian, and tour director, almost literally at the whim of
whoever called from upstairs in the bank or walked through the front door.”
Irene spent almost 30 years compiling a
detailed still-useful subject card index that unified a mixed collection of
books, artifacts, pamphlets, photographs, manuscripts and ephemera on the
era between Wells Fargo’s founding in 1852 and the San Francisco earthquake
and fire of 1906. When a customer walked in with a question, Irene could
find the answer instantly.
With the pittance of money allotted by
the bank, Irene added wisely to the collection. She contracted with William
Long and Norm Wilson to create traveling displays filled with real artifacts
that circulated among the branches. Irene managed a working collection. Its
value came from use.
Harking back to the political savvy
gained from that Stanford major, an observer noted, “She was all things to
all people, an authority or a dilettante, a voluble talker or a patient
listener, a combination traveling ambassador and resident diplomat.” Of
course, Irene was nationally known as a speaker on Wells Fargo and the
a book carries warm thanks to Irene for her help. In 1949, Joseph Henry
Jackson, the San Francisco Chronicle’s legendary book reviewer and author,
thanked Irene “especially” for making available Wells Fargo & Co. records.
Similarly in 1969, the equally illustrious Richard Hugh Dillon stated, “My
particular gratitude goes to Irene Simpson for her splendid research help.”
When I arrived a decade later, researchers still asked for Irene and
pleasantly recalled past assistance.
Irene Neasham packed a pugnacious
personality. After years as a male bastion, a local German restaurant
decided to admit women — but only after one o’clock. As Irene marched in
that first day, she spotted the maître d’ counting the seconds. Her
withering glance, I suspect, made their cabbage especially sour that day.
Irene joined about every available organization. A sampling includes:
American Association of
American Association of State and Local History; trustee
American Association of University Women; joined in 1938
California Historical Society; president, 1970
California Heritage Preservation Commission, to which she was appointed by
Governors Pat Brown and Ronald Reagan through the 1960s; chairperson
C C H S; president, 1963-1964
Friends of The Bancroft Library
International Order of the [Masonic] Rainbow for Girls; Worthy Advisor, 1934
Sacramento County Historical Society
San Francisco Corral of Westerners; sheriff, 1989
San Mateo County Historical Society
Special Libraries Association, San Francisco Chapter; treasurer, 1960
Western Cover Society
Western Museums League
As president of CCHS in
1963, her vision is instructive: “Ten years ago, the Conference of
California Historical Societies was a dream. You have made it a reality,”
Irene Simpson told the Conference. Her goal was as simple as it was strong:
“I firmly believe we could, over the next ten years, become the leading
organization to foster worthwhile historical projects, sponsor farseeing
legislation for the preservation of historical landmarks, and encourage a
respect for an understanding of California’s past in a growing California.”
Meantime, Aubrey Neasham gained his
doctorate from UC Berkeley in 1936, became a regional National Parks
historian, and in 1953 he began building “a sound historical program” within
the California State Parks. Shortly, this resident of the City of the Plain
had more than enough to do restoring Old Sacramento, now blessed by a Wells
however, Neasham lost his bearings and grounded in Bolinas Lagoon. That is
to be expected from a Cal Bear, who ventures too close to that mythic place.
Mistakenly, Neasham thought the Old Buccaneer Sir Francis Drake had landed
there, rather than the proven anchorage of Drake’s Bay.
Road signs keep disappearing, today, making Bolinas impossible to find. The
situation was worse 500 years ago. Was Neasham doomed to lie “Bear” and
abandoned in the lagoon’s “Rotten Row?” No! Irene, that avid football fan,
stretched out to Aubrey a Cardinal red Palo Alto to save him. In return, she
did not “axe” too much. They married in 1969, making the Cal-Stanford Big
Game a household rivalry.
Irene gave up management of the History
Room in May 1973 and officially retired from Wells Fargo on July 1, 1974, to
a life of playing the piano, dominoes and bridge, sampling liquid products
from Napa County, traveling and fishing. She drove until last year.
My colleague Anne M. Hall, a Wells
College graduate and curator of the History Museum, and therefore Irene’s
successor, interviewed Irene, and has her own stories to tell:
My acquaintance with
Irene Neasham started during my time as curator in the Old Sacramento Wells
Fargo History Museum. Irene wasted no time in stopping by to introduce
herself when she had professional activities that brought her to Sacramento.
Those visits typified the wonderful temperament that was Irene; she would
informally inspect the facility to make sure we were maintaining her high
standards, and then inquire in her warm and engaging manner what new and
progressive activities were occurring.
I had the opportunity to delve deeper
into Irene’s professional career when I conducted an oral history with her
as part of San Jose State University MLIS coursework. Our discussion
covered both time and content broadly, as her professional career spanned
such variety — from the Golden Gate International Exposition to the
deployment of IBM machines in Wells Fargo business processes, from History
Room tours for young visitors to the exhibition of the gold spike, and
from informal professional friendships to the circumstance under which she
became the first female president of the California Historical Society —
all part of her grand adventure.
Some common threads throughout Irene’s
work include: commitment to challenging and sustaining work; steadfastness
to a vision of progress, even if it made others uncomfortable; and a
desire to foster personal attachments to California history for all who
crossed her path.
Prior to her WAVES service, Irene left
the second highest position for a secretary in the bank because it failed
to challenge her professionally. When Irene felt the bank was acting in a
manner that was not in the best interests of the History Room, she voiced
her concern to members of the board of directors. To close many of her
speeches, Irene would invite people to come to the History Room so that,
as she said, “I can have the pleasure of showing you something in our
collection of special interest to you.”
Irene jokingly stated in the oral
history, “I’m glad they did all the things I told them to do…they did
right by me.” We are honored in Wells Fargo Historical Services to be
carrying on Irene’s legacy.
Irene had an exuberance
for life. “What I like is people,” Irene said, and “Wells Fargo gave me a
whopping good go at enjoying a lot of them.” Irene, we miss you!