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.