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Exploring the Michigan State University archives

Most researchers visit an archive looking for specific information. A few years ago, while writing an article about Students for a Democratic Society, I discovered a treasure trove of fake letters to John Hannah.

The letters definitively show how the FBI COINTELPRO, a federally funded disinformation campaign, used fake letters to influence the MSU administration to take action against State News journalists for running the f-word.

Although most visits to archives don’t lead to as dramatic results, you never know what you are going to find.

The new book “Tales from the Archives: Volume One:

Campus and Traditions,” published by the Michigan State University Archives & Historical Collections, gives credence to that premise.

Nestled within the 40 vignettes segmented into categories as varied as Traditions and Campus Events to People of MSU, are some funny, intriguing and little known tales about MSU.

Perhaps one section should be renamed “Pranks, high jinx and goofing off.”

Did you know about M.A.C. co-ed Gertrude Peters, who in 1903 was expelled for some indiscretions relating to “hours” and having dinner with a man? Or that the 1900 J-Hop was delayed due to the discovery of a bomb, or that a Pinkerton was used to dig up dirt on unruly students in 1909?

Most of the vignettes first appeared in blogs on the archives’ website, and were repurposed for the book.

In the preface, Cynthia Ghering, director of the archives, details the purpose of archives and the book, “Almost every day we find examples of MSU’s aspirations and destiny, from the individual experiences of students and faculty to the impact of national events as seen through the lens of campus.”

Ghering said that MSU Archives is focusing on “democratizing historical records” by using online resources.

Although discovered too late for the book’s publication, archive staff recently uncovered two rare police surveillance video clips from 1960. They show a protest on Grand River decrying the national policy banning African Americans from being served at lunch counters.

If you look closely, the grainy film shot on Grand River shows young men and women dressed like they were going to church parading in front of a dime store, and amazingly one of the students is Ernie Green — a member of the Little Rock Nine and an MSU student at the time.

MSU graduates will also appreciate vignettes that delve into the history of long standing traditions, such as “the rock,” the MSU Fight Song and the freshman-sophomore rivalries.

Worth retelling are the tales of MSU “Snow Days” beginning in 1967, when a 24-hour, 20.4 inch blizzard closed campus for the first time. The vignette states that Olin Health Center treated 18 students for injuries. My college roommate, who cut himself while sledding on a tray borrowed from the cafeteria, was one of those patients.

Another fascinating collection held by the archives is the more than 350 scrapbooks covering student life starting in the 1860s and continuing into the 2000s.

Megan Badgley Malone in “Tales” wrote, “Materials in the scrapbooks range from photographs and ephemera, such as dance cards to sports and theatre tickets to brochures and flower pressings.”

She continued, that scrapbooks “offer a direct view into the life of a student and the information is not tinted by the administration or faculty, which is very unique.”

Often scrapbooks will reveal burgeoning romances, tragic breakups and world wars on the horizon.

The scrapbook of Donna Moran, a Michigan State student from 1949-1954, included the log of all phone calls coming into their room. The scrapbook of co-ed Katherine Vedder shows stories of her incredible climb to fame when she was offered a contract from Oscar Hammerstein, for her dancing and singing skills. She chose rather to stay at MSC and finish her degree, leaving fleeting fame behind.

In addition to extensive information available on students, two large collections are worth mentioning. The papers of two college presidents, Hannah and Clifton Wharton, provide incredible insight into their administrations. Hannah, the longest-serving president, served during the tumultuous ‘60s, and researchers are often found pouring through his papers. Several books have been written based on material found in his papers.

Wharton’s extensive papers were just recently delivered in 500 boxes and will serve researchers for numerous years to come.

The 172-page book is available at Schuler Books or from the archives itself and costs $25.

Full Disclosure: I wrote the foreword for the book at no cost. While researching an article on MSU and Civil Rights, I discovered a letter from a parent in my hometown whose daughter planned to go to MSU. She asked Hannah to respond to her concerns about drugs, alcohol use and promiscuity on campus. Hannah cleverly blamed outsiders in his response.

City Pulse Book Club meets Feb. 1

The City Pulse Book Club will discuss “The Odyssey of Echo Company,” by Doug Stanton, which looks at the Tet offensive in Vietnam, at 7 p.m. Feb. 1 at Schuler Books & Music in the Meridian Mall. Each month this year, the club os reading books about 1968 or published in 1968 as part of the year’s golden anniversary. For more information, please contact Bill Castanier at castanier@sbcglobal.net.

The book choice for March is “Slouching Towards Jerusalem,” by Joan Didion, which replaces the original choice of “MyLai: Vietnam, 1968, and the Descent into Darkness.” The club will meet at 7 p.m. March 1.

For April, the club will read “Parting the Waters: America in the King years,” by Taylor Branch. It will meet at 7 p.m. April 5.

All meetings for the rest of the year will be at Schuler Books and Music in Meridian Mall.


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