As UCI professor emeritus of history and the 2006 recipient of the campus’s prestigious Lauds & Laurels Extraordinarius Award for his longtime service to the university, Spencer Olin is one of the last people one would expect to watch “The O.C.” — a hit TV show about vapid, privileged Orange County teens.
Olin’s interest in the program, however, is purely academic. He’s curious about how the show portrays Orange County to the rest of the world. Olin describes himself as a “historian of modern America,” and his research has led to greater understanding of the county and of UCI.
He began studying Orange County — and dispelling the misconception of the region as a sleepy suburb of L.A. — in the mid-1980s.
“A group of us (historians and sociologists) decided the complex nature of Orange County was widely misunderstood,” he says. “At the time, bashing the ’burbs was common. Suburbs were viewed as bastions of parochialism, narrowness and exclusivity.”
Their research led to an oft-cited book Olin co-authored calledPostsuburban California: The Transformation of Orange County Since World War II. The O.C., the researchers suggested, was not a bedroom community but an “edge city” that was technologically advanced, economically potent and surprisingly diverse.
“It wasn’t consistent with the idea of sleepy hinterlands, of moms driving SUVs with screaming kids in the back seats. Orange County had cultural vitality.”
Olin’s interest in modern history has benefited UCI, as he focuses his research on the university itself. Few people know the campus better. He arrived here as a faculty member in 1965 and has held many key academic positions. In his busy postretirement years, he has served as adviser to the UCI Historical Records Project, and he’s delved into the campus’s “underappreciated” architectural history as co-curator of the UCI Libraries’ exhibit, Under Construction Indefinitely, and organizer of last fall’s 40th anniversary symposium, Designing UCI.
Olin will be honored for his contributions to the campus at the Alumni Association’s Lauds & Laurels ceremony Thursday, April 27, at The Westin South Coast Plaza. In 1998, he received the campus’s highest honor, The UCI Medal.
At the invitation of Chancellor Michael Drake, he’s currently recording UCI’s oral history.
“I feel fortunate to still have a role around here,” Olin says. The campus community feels fortunate, too.