October 10, 2003: Volume 59, Number 5
AboutU - Alumni
Jump to Story:
'Bigger than imagined,' the Encyclopedia arrives
Wayne Somers '61
Finally, the book that editor Wayne Somers '61 calls "bigger than any of us had imagined" is done.
The Encyclopedia of Union College History, is a one-volume, 860-page exploration of Union from its founding to 1990.
It is available at the College Bookstore. Cost is $35.
The word "encyclopedia" was chosen carefully. The book is not a history in the sense of a systematic attempt to summarize the past. Rather, it is, as Somers puts it, a compendium of historical data.
"Planning this book, I could see two very different ways to proceed," Somers says. "I could chart only those roads which lead from the past to the present, or I could also survey the cul-de-sacs and meandering cow paths of Union's past-the roads that seem from our vantage point to have led in the wrong direction or nowhere at all."
Somers chose the second approach, and the result is a collection of more than 825 separate articles. Most were researched and written by Somers; about 100 were done by others and then edited by him. The reader who wanders through the volume will undoubtedly learn something about Union that he or she did not know beforehand.
Recently Somers took a look back at the project. (A full text of the interview with Somers can be found in the Union College magazine at http://www.union.edu/N/DS/s.php?s=3885).
Dustjacket of Encyclopedia of Union College History by Wayne Somers '61
Q: How did this project originate?
A: I'd done some previous writing on Union history, and my friend Jan Ludwig, a professor of philosophy who was co-chairing the Bicentennial Committee, asked me if I'd undertake a volume modeled on Alexander Leitch's A Princeton Companion. President Hull commissioned the work in 1991, and we all thought it could be completed in time for the Bicentennial celebration in early 1995.
I recruited more than fifty people, mostly current or retired faculty members, to write 102 articles on topics with which they were already familiar, and I set out to research and write what turned out to be another 726 articles myself. I was joined in the research by my old friend Ruth Anne Evans, who had just retired from the library. She was an almost infallible source of information and a dogged researcher until her death in 2001.
Q: How did you decide what to include?
A: We wanted to cast the widest possible net, to reflect the full life of the College over almost two centuries and to give every segment a history. Not just presidents, trustees, benefactors, and academic departments, but sailing clubs and Garnet editors and chaplains and maintenance workers and fundraisers and students in wheelchairs and admissions officers and Jews and women and blacks and basketball players. And we wanted a full spectrum of broader topics, such as curriculum, security, alumni relations, governance, religion, tenure, academic freedom, town-gown relations. We also wanted to re-examine the historical claims commonly made about Union, and either put them on a solid basis or retire them.
Q: How current is the Encyclopedia?
A: To preserve objectivity and perspective, we stopped at the end of the Morris administration-August 31, 1990. After that, a few major changes, such as renovation of the Nott Memorial and the erection of the Yulman Theater, receive brief mention.
Q: How does one research such topics?
A: You can't do it one topic at a time because most of the sources aren't indexed adequately, if at all. I read, and took notes on, all of the Concordy and other newspapers, the various alumni magazines, the Idol and the Garnet and their predecessors, selections from the papers of various presidents and trustees, and many miscellaneous sources. Ruth Anne read and took notes on the trustees minutes. All this reading, of course, turned up new topics that had to be dealt with. The notes went into a computer database on which I drew while writing articles.
Q: So it's really like detective work?
A: It's probably equally undramatic most of the time, but more interesting, because academics, on average, are more intelligent than criminals and-believe it or not-many of them lead more imaginative lives.
We had a couple very satisfying investigative breakthroughs. For instance, if you like, the Case of the President's Gallstone. Through most of his tenure President Day had vague health problems which some of his contemporaries seemed to doubt had an objective medical cause. In 1933 he had a gallstone removed, but although he was a vigorous middle-aged man, his recovery was so slow that he had to take a leave of absence, and then the trustees fired him, in part because they doubted he would fully recover.
I really wanted to get to the bottom of this, but it seemed impossible. I discussed it with a doctor I knew, who suggested I contact a pathologist at the hospital. It turns out that they keep surgical records for a very long time, and he found the records of the operation, which showed that Day had a bad infection and, in those pre-antibiotic days, would have been plagued with abscesses for a long time.
And then there was the Case of the Mysterious Sculptor. When the statue of Chester Arthur came to Union, the alumni magazine reported the sculptor's name as Ephraim Peyser. Such a commission would surely have been given to a well-established sculptor, but we could find no trace of Peyser in any reference book, or even on Google. Finally Ruth Anne Evans did what academic historians too rarely do: she left the archives and looked for herself, and under Chet's coattails she found the correct name, Ephraim Keyser.
<< Previous Story
Frank Messa '73 funds...