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Ties that bind: Bigelow family celebrates Union's favorite citizen

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Members of the Bigelow Society check out the exhibit, "Remembered First Citizen," during their annual meeting. (Photos by Matt Milless)College librarian Frances Maloy, Annette LeClair, head of technical services, Matthew Connolly, digital projects specialist and Ellen Fladger, head of Special Collections, at the reception Friday night in Schaffer Library. Bigelow Society members held their first meeting on campus, where they learned about John Bigelow, Class of 1835.Part of the exhibit includes the John Bigelow Medal, established in 2008 by Presdident Stephen C. Ainlay to recognize friends of the College who have contributed to the advancement of humanity.Mark Walker, the John Bigelow Professor of History, spoke at a reception Friday night.

In the early '90s, Rod Bigelow came to campus to visit his son, Jeffrey '95. Wandering into Schaffer Library, he noticed a special "Union Worthies" publication that chronicled the extraordinary life of John Bigelow.

Thumbing through the 40-page booklet, he learned about the post-Union feats of John Bigelow, a member of the Class of 1835. Co-founder of the New York Public Library. Editor and publisher of Benjamin Franklin's autobiography. Appointed consul general to Paris by President Abraham Lincoln, to name just a few of his accomplishments.

What Rod Bigelow didn’t know at the time was that he was related to one of Union's most distinguished alums.

This past weekend, Rod Bigelow and more than a dozen other members of the Bigelow Society met for the first time at the College for their annual meeting. The group has about 500 members and publishes a quarterly newsletter, The Forge, about the genealogy of generations of the family descended from John Bagley Bigelow.

The focal point of this year's gathering was Union's Bigelow, the seventh generation of the family in America and arguably one of the most unheralded figures of the 19th century and early 20th century.

A reception Friday evening in the library featured remarks by College librarian Frances Maloy, David Hayes, acting dean of the faculty and vice president for academic affairs, and Mark Walker, the John Bigelow Professor of History.

On Saturday, the group, including staff from Schaffer Library, visited Bigelow's homestead in Malden-on-Hudson in Saugerties, N.Y. They also listened to presentations from Ellen Fladger, head of Special Collections, Matthew Connolly, digital projects specialist and Annette LeClair, head of technical services at Schaffer.

Attendees also enjoyed an encore of an earlier exhibit about Bigelow, "Remembered First Citizen," featuring artifacts such as his death mask, typewriter and working papers for his groundbreaking edition of the Franklin autobiography. Also on display are letters to Bigelow from such luminaries as Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan and a telegram from President William Taft noting the death of Bigelow on Dec. 19, 1911.

The title of the exhibit is a nod to the 1947 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Bigelow, Forgotten First Citizen, by Margaret Clapp, who believed that Bigelow never received the attention he deserved.

"He just wasn't a self-promoter," said Rod Bigelow, a retired inspector and supervisor for the U.S. Customs Service and president of the Bigelow Society. "He was a great man who had a fascinating life. You look at politicians and others today who are just promoters, John wasn't like that."

The Bigelow reunion coincides with an ongoing project at Union, The Correspondence of John Bigelow, a massive digital index of more than 20,000 letters from political, cultural and literary giants, including Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain and Charles Dickens.

The collection was gifted to the College by the Bigelow family decades ago. Along with the New York Public Library, Union boasts the largest collection of Bigelow material.

"We are so thrilled to have the Bigelow Society meet here," said LeClair. "John Bigelow was a remarkable man, and to be able to share his story with his relatives is special."

To read more about the Bigelow Society's reunion in the Times Union, click here.