Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The Story Behind the CMU Seal

For most of the CMU community, the university seal and the Latin motto, “Sapientia, Virtus, Amicitia,” seem like they have been around forever. But that’s not the case. This year, amidst the celebrations of the University’s 125th anniversary, CMU reporters caught up with Pete Ketzler, the designer of the seal, to talk about the beginnings of the idea in the early 1950s and timelessness of the seal today. Read the story and watch the video on the CMU News site.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Clarke Director Shares the Stories of Beloved Campus Buildings

As CMU’s official YouTube channel notes, “everyone has a favorite building or two on campus.” Recently, Frank Boles, the Director of the Clarke, was interviewed about the history of two buildings that have been central to the memories made by thousands of CMU alumni – Grawn Hall and Barnard Hall. Have a look at this video and be sure to check out the Clarke’s historical timeline of the CMU built environment for more about your favorite building ... or two.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Exactly When Was CMU Founded

by Frank Boles

Through the kindness of a donor the Clarke Library recently received an early Central class ring, proudly emblazoned with the School’s founding year – 1891. Considering we are celebrating the 125th anniversary of Central’s founding this year, in 1892, the ring is something of an inconvenient artifact. It was hard to imagine, however, that someone would get something like the date the school was founded wrong in bronze.

As it turns out Central has used a variety of dates regarding when the school was founded. Among the earliest documents in the CMU Archives it states clearly and repeatedly that the institution was founded in 1891. However in 1949 the State Board of Education, which at the time had administrative control of the School, decided that the institution was actually founded in 1892.

The argument for the change was likely quite straightforward. Central had claimed it was founded in the fall of 1891 when a group of four of Mt. Pleasant’s leading citizens met informally and agreed in principle to a scheme to create a private teaching school in Mt. Pleasant. The State Board likely pointed out that it is one thing to sit around in an office and decide something should be done, and quite another to actually go out and do it. And in point of fact these leading citizens, along with other community leaders, did not get around to legally organizing an entity to undertake the project until the spring of 1892. On May 24, 1892 sixteen people organized the Mt. Pleasant Improvement Association, with the purpose of creating a “Normal University.”

But in solving one puzzle a new one is created: why does Central celebrate its birthday on September 13, rather than May 24?

Although the Improvement Association’s stated goal was to found a University, the mechanism was not straightforward. It was, instead, a speculative real estate scheme. The Association bought a farm near the south end of Mt. Pleasant, set aside a portion of the farm to be the site of the new University, and divided the rest of the farm into 210 lots which it intended to sell. The founding of the University, or more properly the construction of a building to house the University on the land set aside for this purpose, was dependent on income received from the sale of the lots. If the real estate scheme didn’t work, there would be no building, and without the building “Normal University” would largely be an imaginary creature.

The lots did, however, sell, and during the spring and early summer several milestones were met. One important milestone was signing a contract in June 1892 with Charles Bellows, who agreed to become principal of the new University and also recruit both faculty and students. However, much like selling lots to fund a University, hiring someone who agrees to find faculty and students is not exactly the same thing as having either of those essential components of any school. There was clearly a good deal of work to do during the summer months, and a lot that might go wrong.

Bellows, however, was good to his word. September 13, 1892 was the first day of classes. The faculty had been assembled, as least a few students showed up on a rainy morning, and the business of education was begun. The choice of September 13 as CMU’s birthday is a bit arbitrary, but also very logical.

And for the record, the Association held the groundbreaking ceremony for the promised building on September 19, 1892. Classes, which had begun a week earlier, had been convened in rented space located in downtown Mt. Pleasant. Groundbreaking was the capstone of the Association's work. It had raised the money needed to fund the school, recruited Charles Bellows to find faculty and students and run the new institution, and made good on the promise to construct a building for the school’s use. Classes moved to the new building when it was completed in 1893.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Joel Stone Speaks at the Library

by Frank Boles

Joel Stone, senior curator of the Detroit Historical Museum, spoke at the library on October 19. He discussed the Museum’s multi-year planning effort which resulted in the exhibit, Detroit 67: Perspectives. The exhibit takes the long view of the civil disturbance that swept Detroit in July 1967. It begins by looking at the complex factors that took place across metropolitan Detroit during the 50 years prior to 1967, reviews the unrest that occurred between July 23 and August 1, 1967 and ends by exploring the 50 years since 1967, detailing the progress the city has made as well the setbacks that have been encountered. 

Stone’s presentation did not comprehensively discuss this century-long history, but rather spoke about how the museum worked to tell the story of that week, what led to it, and the consequences of the events as that were felt then, and are still felt today. Over one hundred partners joined the museum staff to bring many perspectives into the exhibit.  

Stone shared in his presentation the tension of the discussions with partners. Everyone, for example remembered the “tanks,” even if in many cases they were not true tanks with a cannon mounted on a turret but an armored personnel carrier (APC). The distinction was not that important at the time in that they both were big metal machines, both were armed with machine guns, and both ran on tracks rather than tires. How partners remembered the tanks, though, varied dramatically.

In a discussion about whether to include a tank in the exhibit three Black women sitting next to each other at one meeting encapsulated the raw emotion the vehicle inspired. The first completely opposed including a tank, noting passionately that they were the ultimate symbol of oppression. The second responded with equal passion that her parents loved having a tank on their street – it meant their home was safe from the many fires caused by arsonists. And the third woman, listening to the first two, said that if a tank got that kind of raw response from these two ladies, then it had to be in the exhibit – what else carried that kind of interpretative weight.

An APC is in the exhibit – although after having found a real one and gotten into it the museum staff realized their initial idea of opening the back an allowing people to walk in was a claustrophobia attack waiting to happen. Thus the APC in the exhibit is “opened” with displays in the rear, and no admission into the interior.

And there also were a few myths to dispel, including a handed-down memory of U.S. Army troops parachuting into Detroit in July 1967. The U.S. Army was sent to the city to help restore order, and because they were easily mobilized most of the federal troops sent were paratroopers. However they were flown to local airports where their plane landed and the soldiers got off the plane and onto busses, which drove them the last few miles into Detroit.

Stone’s presentation offered an interesting an impressive window into how a contemporary exhibit on what remains a very controversial event can incorporate community viewpoints, serve as a springboard for discussion, and, one hopes, help create constructive dialog on topics that more often serve to divide rather than to heal.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Newcomer Legacy: A Vietnamese-American Story in West Michigan

by Frank Boles

On October 5 Alan Headbloom presented the documentary he produced and directed, “Newcomer Legacy: A Vietnamese-American Story in West Michigan.” The documentary interviewed nine refugees who fled Vietnam after the fall of Saigon and resettled in the Grand Rapids area. It asked about their leave taking from Vietnam, how they first experienced and grew to understand the United States, and, finally, where today they would call “home.”

The leave taking was often harrowing and sometime heartbreaking. One interviewee spoke of how her husband got her out of the country, but stayed himself because of the obligation he felt to others. After reaching America, she received a few letters from her husband, before she eventually learned he had been executed. Others spoke of dangerous trips in unseaworthy, overcrowded boats and period of interment in countries such as Malaysia.

The interviewees also spoke of their arrival, and the challenges they faced in a new land. One spoke of how she and her family were greeted at the airport by representatives of a local church who had “adopted” the family. They were taken from the airport to a furnished house that they were allowed to live in, with supper waiting for them on the table. Many of the interviewees told similar stories regarding the kindness they experienced in their first days in America.

But however welcoming the local population was, the refugees had been uprooted from there former lives and placed in a completely new environment. There were, therefore, challenges. Things residents of Grand Rapids might easily take for granted could prove an obstacle for these newly arrived refugees. Everyone who arrived in the winter commented on the cold. One comical yet revealing story was about how early on one of the refugees needed to travel in town. He was shown where the bus stop was, told where he needed to get off, and warned that several different bus would come by and that he should wait for the number 4. This was good advice, but the morning he left his house it had snowed and the exterior numbers on the bus that drove past were unreadable. Without any English language skills he couldn’t ask the bus driver if this was the number 4 bus. After three bus passed he decided he would just have to take a chance, and got on the next bus. Inside, he saw it was indeed the number 4 bus, and thanked God.

To a person each of the refugees worked very hard and succeeded in their new home. As Alan Headbloom pointed out, this is typical of refugees. Unlike other immigrants, who can always go home if things don’t work out, going home for these people could mean imprisonment or even death. They had no “plan B.” Making life work in America was the only option.

In the last few minutes of the documentary the refugees were asked where, for them, is now “home.” Each answered the question in various ways, but each ended by saying “home” was now Michigan.

In an era when immigration plays an important role in our national political discussion, Alan Headbloom’s documentary offers invaluable insights into the immigrant experience. For more information about the documentary visit Mr. Headbloom’s Facebook page, www.facebook.com/NewcomerLegacy.