Monday, January 11, 2021

An Archivist’s Friendship with a Former CMU President

by Bryan Whitledge

President Bill Boyd at podium
When I learned that Bill Boyd, former Central Michigan University President, passed away last month as a result of contracting COVID-19, I was truly saddened. I felt that I had lost a dear friend with whom I shared many important moments in Central’s history—occasions like the May 1970 takeover of the ROTC building, hosting the 1975 International Special Olympics Summer Games, and changing CMU’s policies to deem the children of migrant workers in-state residents for tuition purposes.

But when one looks at the facts of my life and when I crossed paths with President Boyd, a glaring gap is visible… when Bill Boyd left CMU to become president at the University of Oregon, I wasn’t yet born. In fact, I wasn’t yet out of elementary school when he retired from working life altogether. Even more, it wasn’t until I was 29 years old and President Boyd was nearly 90 years old and had been away from Central for 35 years that I first heard of him. And to cap it off, I never met the man and only on two occasions where I was in the room when he was on a telephone call with others did I get the chance to talk to him, asking him a brief matter-of-fact question each time to which he replied in a similar fashion… in total, we talked to each other for maybe 30 seconds in our lives. None of this is indicative of a personal relationship.

So why is it, with so much time between his tenure and my work at CMU, and having never met President Boyd and only very briefly talking to him, do I feel such a personal connection with this man? The simple answer is because of the power of archives.

I am not the first person, nor will I be the last, to feel this. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has talked about the intimate relationships she has formed with FDR, Abe Lincoln, and other US presidents, even though she never met them. French researcher Arlette Farge wrote a classic of archives literature in 1989, Le Goût de l’archive (The Allure of the Archives), in which she discusses how “she was seduced by the sensuality of old manuscripts and by the revelatory power of voices otherwise lost.” And it is common for budding archivists, while in graduate school, to get a little piece of advice from one of the veterans working with them when the graduate student gets their first assignment processing and arranging a collection: “Hopefully, you like Ms. X, because you are going to be spending a lot of time with her.”

President Boyd and Eunice Kennedy Shriver,
1974 Michigan Special Olympics State Summer Games

In my case, I first “met” President Boyd in 2011, when I joined the Clarke’s team and began researching the history of the university. I was new to CMU and I didn’t know a thing about the history of the university. So, I was advised to start with John Cumming’s book. I still remember reaching the last 50 pages of the book or so and reading about President Boyd. I was immediately intrigued by him. He seemed like a history-making figure and a decent person. I then dug into the Central Michigan Life student newspaper and the Centralight alumni magazine. When documenting events of the late 1960s to mid-1970s, President Boyd seemed to be at the center of all of the action – anti-Vietnam-War activism, the formation of the Faculty Association (one of the first collective bargaining units for faculty at a 4-year university in the country), CMU moving up to NCAA Division I in athletics, the liberalization of residence hall regulations that forced women students to observe an earlier curfew then men students, and more. And in each case, his actions always seemed wise and he often had something intelligent and reasonable to say.

With that research project, I also dug into the archives of previous university presidents—Anspach, Warriner, Able, and of course, Boyd. The folders of speeches, correspondence, and working files gave me an idea of how each of these people approached their job and what they valued. Working with the Boyd records, I began to really like the guy. By January of 2012, when I had wrapped up the research, I was impressed with President Boyd and thought he was a special person.

As time moved on, I learned more and more about him. In late 2012, I mentioned to a colleague in the History Department about President Boyd’s efforts to increase diversity at CMU by hiring Dr. Robert Thornton, a physicist from San Francisco State University, in June 1969. Dr. Thornton was brought on as a special assistant charged with increasing recruitment of Black students and faculty and providing guidance to incorporate Black Studies into CMU’s curriculum. My colleague said, “Do you realize that San Francisco State was the first school in the country with a Black Studies program and it started in March of 1969?” I had no idea! Just four months after SFSU started their program, Boyd was drawing on their experience to try to improve CMU. One more fact about President Boyd’s sense of decency and humanity was added to my knowledge of him.

President Bill Boyd and Professor Jean Mayhew,
"King and Queen of Gentle Friday," 1970

A couple years later, I was invited to listen to an oral history interview between Frank Boles, the director of the Clarke, and President Boyd. Over speakerphone, I listened to President Boyd say that he was most proud of making the Central campus more beautiful, and remark on the May 1970 unrest by saying, “I was surprised and pleased by the good nature of the Central student body.” After a couple years of digging into the archives and answering questions about the history of CMU, it wasn’t a stretch for me to imagine being there as he was making tough decisions during a stressful situation.

Two years after that, I spoke to a group of about fifteen alumni involved in the anti-Vietnam-War movement, and I listened as every single person had something complimentary to say about President Boyd. One of the members of the group contacted him via telephone and the conversation that ensued between the alumni and their former president were, to say the least, very touching. After the alumni expressed their gratitude for his leadership and the lessons they learned from his example some 45 years after those moments in history, President Boyd ended the phone call by saying that speaking with all of these former students that day was among one of the best moments of his life. By this point, I felt like I knew Central’s seventh president.

President Bill Boyd speaks to students
outside "Freedom Hall," May 1970

Over the years, I had many more of these moments in which I learned more about the decency and humanity of President Boyd: when I learned about the change to residency requirements for tuition purposes for the children of migrant workers (pages 6-10 of linked article); when I learned about his plans for his inauguration, which featured a rather subdued ceremony, cancelling classes for the afternoon, and hosting free concert for students featuring activist and folk singer Buffy Sainte-Marie; when I learned about Earth Week. I felt proud to “know” the man behind these stories.

After President Boyd’s passing, I read many remembrances including two from Racine, Wisconsin, where he lived for nearly the last 40 years. Both remembrances (Journal Times and Wright in Racine) mentioned a great many things that I never knew about President Boyd—which makes perfect sense objectively because I really only have access to records from the seven years when he was president at Central. But I wasn’t surprised by these wonderful anecdotes because I “know” President Boyd and the stories match exactly the man I know. The same is true for all of the comments on the CMU Alumni Association Facebook page responding to the post announcing President Boyd’s death. In fact, I felt a sense of pride that all of these people respected and admired him—a man who is part of the Central Michigan University family.

The only things that connect me to Bill Boyd are the historical documents in the Clarke and the stories from people who knew him. But, like Arlette Farge and others can attest, those pieces of paper and statements, as seemingly mundane and innocuous as some might believe them to be, hold a great deal of power—enough power to form a relationship. And, knowing what I know about him, generations from now, there is likely to be someone else who digs into the Boyd Papers and forms a friendship with Central’s seventh president.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Miles Harvey on the Life of James Jesse Strang


by Frank Boles

Miles Harvey, author of The King of Confidence, a recently published biography of James Jesse Strang, spoke online on the evening of November 5.

James Jesse Strang was a nineteenth-century figure who, as a teenager, would write in his diary he wished to become “a Priest, a Lawyer, a Conqueror, and a Legislator.” His early life did little to suggest he would succeed in any of his ambitions. Charismatic and incredibly persuasive, he nevertheless failed as a lawyer, a newspaper owner, and as a real estate speculator. 

In 1844, however, his life changed when he traveled to Nauvoo, Illinois, talked into a trip by a friend who said he should hear the founder of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, Joseph Smith, preach. Strang, in his own words, arrived “an inveterate unbeliever and opposer of the Mormon faith.” He left a professed Mormon.

As Harvey documents, Strang’s career from that point forward became one of increased complexity, great success that in many ways matched his teenage dreams, and great failure. Between 1844 and 1856, he lived an extraordinary life – among other accomplishments he led a break-away Mormon colony on Beaver Island where he was proclaimed an earthly king, he became a member of the Michigan legislature where he was an ardent proponent of abolition, and he persuaded a jury to find him innocent when tried in federal court. On June 16, 1856, James was shot and mortally wounded.

What to make of such a career? Harvey places Strang in the context of two nineteenth-century traits: a fluid sense of reality and the confidence man. America was rapidly changing in the 1830s and Americans were not always sure what to make of it. In this ambivalent situation, reality seemed to bend, and new ideas and ways of looking at the world were quickly, and often fervently, embraced. Individuals who could reshape reality, who had confidence in a vision of the future, could begin with seemingly nothing, yet swiftly rise to the highest levels of wealth and social standing.

Although this fluidity could lead to the best of results, it could also lead to disaster.

Con men radiate confidence and use any device they can to convince someone to see the world as they do and to persuade someone to give them what they want. Americans understood this, but nevertheless accepted the con man as embracing a positive aspect of American culture, a person who in the vocabulary of the day was “smart.”

Charles Dickens, who toured America, found himself both appalled and fascinated by Americans’ reaction to these individuals. Dickens would approach an American about a con man with the following words:

“Is it not a very disgraceful circumstance that such a man as So-and-so should be acquiring a large property by the most infamous and odious means, and not withstanding all the crimes of which he has been guilty should be tolerated and abetted by your Citizens? He is a public nuisance, is he not?” “Yes, sir.”

 “A convicted liar?” “Yes, sir.”

“He has been kicked, and cuffed, and caned?”  “Yes Sir.”

“And he is utterly dishonourable, debased and profligate?” “Yes, sir.”

“In the name of wonder then, what is his merit? “Well, sir, he is a smart man.”

Dickens claimed to have had a discussion like this a hundred times, and every time the American, admitting all of the confidence man’s sins, nevertheless admired his ability to shape reality and  succeed—to be a “smart man.” Harvey, in the end concluded that Strang lived in an era of fluid reality and that James Jesse Strang was one of those smart men who created a reality. To hear Harvey’s presentation, click here .

Friday, November 20, 2020

Thanksgiving Day

 by John Fierst

We all know the poem, at least the first few lines, if not the five stanzas that follow:

                                      “Over the river and through the wood,
                                      To grandmother’s house we go
                                      The horse knows the way
                                      To carry the sleigh . . .
                                      etc., etc. etc.”

But did you know that in the original poem they were actually headed to grandfather’s house?  It surprised me too.  Sorry, Grandma.  I came across this disconcerting fact last week while helping a patron.  He was looking for an early primer that he hoped to find in our children’s collection.  While searching, I came across the poem “Thanksgiving Day,” which caught my attention because of the forthcoming holiday.  It was in an anthology published in 1900, and the first lines read:

                                      Over the river and through the wood,
                                      To grandfather’s house we go

Could that be right, grandfather’s house?  The name of the author of the poem surprised me even more: Lydia Maria Child.  Really!  She was the author of “Over the river and through the wood?” I knew who she was but knew little about her. Wikipedia describes her as “an American abolitionist, women’s rights activist, Native American rights activist, novelist, journalist, and opponent of American expansionism.”  She was born in 1802 and died in 1880.  She was a fellow-abolitionist and friend of the poet John Greenleaf Whittier.  The Clarke Historical Library, in its John Greenleaf Whittier collection, holds several letters Child wrote to Whittier (June 19, 1864, June 18, 1878, and October 25, 1879).  

In the poem, did she originally intend it to be grandmother’s house to which we were sleighing?  Or was it grandfather’s?  (Yes, I know, they lived together.  But a point as important as this should not be left to guesswork.  Future generations of children, millions, will be singing this poem.)  A reading of the poem as originally published would answer the question. The poem was first published in 1845 in the second volume of a set of three volumes entitled Flowers for Children.  The Clarke cataloger gave our copy of the set the call number PS1293.F55 1844xa.  Thinking this would be easy, I went confidently to the stacks and pulled Flowers for Children off the shelf, opened the clamshell box, and found inside two copies of volume one and one copy of volume three.  The poem is in volume two.   Nor is volume two easily to be found. doesn’t even list it.  But I did finally track down a transcription of the original poem.  The Pilgrim Hall Museum has placed a transcription of it online. The original title? “The New England Boy’s Song about Thanksgiving Day.”  The first two lines?

                                Over the river and through the wood,
                                To grandfather’s house we go

[Don’t believe me?  See for yourself:

The search led to another unexpected discovery—an answer to why the poem has come down to us in only six verses, when apparently there were many more.  John Greenleaf Whittier is to be blamed (or thanked) for that.  The poem only became well-known after Whittier included it in a volume on poetry for children, which he edited in 1871, Child Life: A Collection of Poems.  Whittier, as editor, would have scaled the poem back to six verses.  Printed below, is the poem, edited by Whittier, known to us today.  Happy Thanksgiving.   


                            Over the river and through the wood,
                            To grandfather’s house we go;* 
                            The horse knows the way
                            To carry the sleigh
                            Through the white and drifted snow.

                            Over the river and through the wood—
                            Oh, how the wind does blow!
                            It stings the toes
                            And bites the nose
                            As over the ground we go.

                            Over the river and through the wood,
                            To have a first-rate play.
                            Hear the bells ring,
                            Hurrah for Thanksgiving-Day!

                            Over the river and through the wood
                            Trot fast, my dapple-gray!
                            Spring over the ground,
                            Like a hunting hound!
                            For this is Thanksgiving-Day.

                            Over the river and through the wood, 
                            And straight through the barn-yard gate.
                            We seem to go
                            Extremely slow,—
                            It is so hard to wait!

                            Over the river and through the wood—
                            Now grandmother’s cap I spy!
                            Hurrah for the fun!
                            Is the pudding done?
                            Hurrah for the pumpkin-pie!

                                     L. Maria Child.

*Or “grandmother’s house.”  They lived together. They were married.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Curating an Exhibit with Anne Alton and Gretchen Papazian

 Frank Boles

On October 15, CMU professors Anne Hiebert Alton and Gretchen Papazian spoke on a webcast about their roles as co-curators of the Clarke’s exhibit, “The Surprise and Wonder of Pop-up Books.” To begin the presentation, they shared a brief history of pop-up books and offered a virtual tour of the exhibit itself. But most of their time was spent sharing how they curated the almost 1,000 pop-up books available to them and selected the ninety books in the exhibit.

The answer: it was a deeply collaborative process that involved selecting books that best illustrated fundamental themes they wished to explore, balanced by the Library staff expertise in planning and implementing exhibitions. A few books they had high hopes for underwhelmed them. A few authors became favorites as the depth and breadth of their work became obvious. For everyone there was a substantial commitment of time, spent first looking at books and then thoughtfully discussing which books would make the best examples to illustrate a particular point or genre of pop-up books.

There was also a need to represent the work of paper engineers, both through time and in the audiences to which they appeal. How many old books versus how many new books? How many examples of the Jolly Jump-Up Family, who seems to have spent most of the 1950s popping up in their comfortable middle class life, or Disney-inspired Mickey and Minnie Mouse books, which should be balanced against examples of contemporary and almost abstract art books created by people such as David Carter and Philippe UG? Similarly, what to do with Courtney Watson McCarthy’s brilliant reinterpretation of Japanese artist Hokusai’s (1760-1849) nineteenth-century masterpiece, “The Great Wave off Kanagawa”? Pop-up books are not just for children, but how best to work these varying themes into a single exhibit was a constant question.

Perhaps what was the most illuminating point made during the presentation was that, there was never a “final plan” to be executed. Rather the exhibit evolved each day up until opening day through ongoing discussion of what was available to display, what was possible to exhibit (a six-inch-tall pop-up does not, sadly, fit into a four-inch-tall exhibit case), how problems could be solved (a six-inch-tall pop-up does fit into a vitrine modified with a custom built seven-inch-tall plexiglass cover), and how one element of the exhibit interacted with another element. A harmonious balance of individual pop-up books artists’ sometimes conflicting styles and purposes was the outcome of this iterative process.

It was a fascinating evening that displayed both the intellectual and the practical aspects of exhibit creation. For those of you who missed it, the presentation can be viewed at 

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Jim Gillingham and the History of CMU on Beaver Island

 Frank Boles

On October 8, CMU Professor Emeritus James Gillingham discussed the history of CMU’s Beaver Island Biological Station. As director of the station from 1985 until 2009, Professor Gillingham could draw on a wealth of personal knowledge, as well as the research into the station’s history he recorded in his publication, The Buck Stopped Here: A History of the Central Michigan University Biological Station on Beaver Island (2019).

The presentation was not hurt by the fact that Professor Gillingham is a gifted storyteller. As he opened his presentation, he noted that no good idea goes without critics, particularly critics in the state legislature who believe they can see a financial boondoggle (in someone else’s district) a mile away. In 1959, the Michigan State Board of Education, then Central’s governing body, authorized construction of the first building on the island for the station, a spartan 8,100-square-foot cinder-block structure.  Not spartan enough, however, for the chair of the state legislature’s Senate Finance Committee, who knew just what those academics in Mt. Pleasant were up to. Senator Elmer R. Porter thundered, “I don’t care what they call it – it’s just a social affair – 99 percent social. I’m surprised the State Board of Education would approve a thing like this in times of austerity.”

But the thing was approved despite the senator’s conviction that Central was building an island retreat for the enjoyment of its staff (we should be so lucky!). The first building was quickly constructed. And with it, the history of the station began.

Gillingham’s presentation skillfully weaved through the physical and academic history of the station, as well as the many people closely associated with it over the seven decades since its opening. It is a long and fascinating history full of academic accomplishment, a broad range of curricular activities, and, with due respect for Senator Elmer’s correct observation about what would likely happen if you put a hundred college students together on an island, more than a little fun. 

For anyone interested in learning about the broad scope and many accomplishments of the Biological Station, as well as some of the fun that took place over the years, Jim’s presentation, like his book on the subject, is a rich source of information.