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March 18, 2015

Online history project gives voice to University’s past

View the Living History Project at livinghistory.lib.rochester.edu

William Warfield wearing commencement garb
William Warfield earned a bachelor of music degree at Eastman in 1942, and returned at the close of World War II for a period of graduate studies in 1947, prior to embarking upon a career in stage and concert performance in which he gained high critical acclaim and strong international reputation as a concert baritone, film and television actor, and narrator. He distinguished himself as a teacher of voice and professor of music at the University of Illinois. In recognition of his notably outstanding career, the University awarded him an honorary doctor of music degree at commencement in 1988.

man standing by building steps outdoors
Dexter Perkins was hired by the University as an assistant professor of history in 1914. He advanced to full professor in 1925, when he became head of the history department. Widely regarded as an expert on the Monroe Doctrine, Perkins was the author of 17 books, many of them on the formation and conduct of America foreign policy. When he retired from the University in 1954, Perkins became the first John L. Senior Professor of American Civilization at Cornell University, a position he held until 1959.

woman from the 1950s
In 1933, Ruth Merrill became the first woman director of a student union in the United States when she was appointed director of Cutler Union at the College for Women on the University’s Prince Street Campus. In 1954—the year prior to the merger of the men’s and women’s colleges on the River Campus, she was named dean of women, and served until 1960, when she retired. For two years after retirement, she became the first director of volunteers at Strong Memorial Hospital. The Student Activities Center in Wilson Commons was named in her honor in 1976.

Have you ever wanted to peek behind the scenes of University history? Hear the voices of one-time leaders and alumni who experienced a very different Rochester?

The River Campus Libraries, collaborating with the other campuses, have launched a new project designed to let you do just that. The Living History Project was formally established in 2013, at the suggestion of President Joel Seligman. It’s an effort to make existing oral histories, recorded beginning in the 1960s, easily accessible and to add to them with new interviews.

The site complements the new book about University history, Our Work Is But Begun: A History of the University of Rochester, 1850–2005, by Janice Bullard Pieterse (University of Rochester Press, 2014). While the book offers a formal account of the institution, the living history project “adds a diverse mix of people who can flesh out the history of the University,” says Mary Ann Mavrinac, vice provost and the Andrew H. and Janet Dayton Neilly Dean of River Campus Libraries.

“It’s very individual, very personal,” says Melissa Mead, the John M. and Barbara Keil University Archivist and Rochester Collections Librarian. “A University is made up of its people—and oftentimes it’s how we best respond to our history.”

Paul Burgett ’68E, ’76E (PhD)—vice president, senior advisor to the president, and University dean—has conducted several of the recent interviews. “I believe it is important to our understanding of the history to include the spoken words of those who have had the lived experience at the University, including faculty, alums, friends, trustees,” he says. “Each has his or her own unique story, which taken in aggregate, with the stories of others, provides an exciting and informed human quilt about the University of Rochester.”

The effort “will go on and on and on as there are more people who will share their experiences as staff, faculty, and alumni,” Mavrinac says. “We’re talking not solely to the luminaries, but to everyone—a long-standing staff member, or someone who came here as a student after World War II. It adds such a rich tapestry to the history of the University, which is typically more formal.”

Inclusiveness is critical, says Burgett, a member of the project’s advisory board. “It’s important that our subject pool be representative of the great diversity in the University, so knowing the experiences of women, of people of color, of the young, of the old, of the disabled, of the international population… The challenge, of course, is in there being time and resources enough to do all of these things, because those who are involved have so much on their plates. If we had an army of 20 interviewers, that would be great. But we don’t. So we do as much as we can.”

An anonymous donor has given funds to provide for hiring a researcher and the cost of travel, of transferring recordings to digital formats, and of creating transcripts.

Former University archivist Nancy Ehrich Martin ’65, ’94 (MA) has worked both as an interviewer and an annotator of interviews. “There is a huge amount of closeness to the history of the University that you can’t get any other way. You have the person’s voice and their personality—it’s a prism through which you see the University at that time. The people interviewed in the ’70s were sometimes remembering things in the 1910s, the 1920s—and it truly was a different world.”

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