My mentor and friend Bob McCown, retired Head of the Special Collections Department in the University of Iowa Libraries, died on March 31st of this year. To remember Bob on what would have been his 76th birthday–November 21st–I share the eulogy I gave at his memorial service last spring.
Robert A. McCown (1939-2015)
Bob McCown was the first person I met in Iowa when I came for my job interview in 1992. On that April day twenty-three years ago, he was waiting at the bottom of the escalator in the Cedar Rapids Airport holding a sign that read: “Iowa Women’s Archives.” I was full of wonder about this new place that might become my home—amused at the scale of the airport, and charmed by the fact that we were driving past cornfields as soon as we left the parking lot. All during that drive to Iowa City, Bob told me about the history of Iowa—how it was settled, the Mormons who passed through with their handcarts, and other stories I have long since forgotten. What stayed with me was the sense of this kind, soft-spoken man who had such deep knowledge of and affection for his home state.
Bob was Head of the Department of Special Collections at that time. He had earned a master’s degree in history from the University of Iowa in 1963, taught high school history for a few years, and earned his library degree from Illinois before returning to Iowa in 1970 for a position in the University Libraries.
Bob was hired as Manuscripts Librarian at a time when the new fields of social history, ethnic history, and women’s history were emerging. He began traveling across Iowa in the early 1970s, intent on acquiring sources that would make this new scholarship possible. But the recent student demonstrations in Iowa City had roused suspicion about the University of Iowa. So Bob shined his shoes, cut his hair, and put on a coat and tie to allay the fears of outstate residents. In his quiet and considerate way, he tried to persuade potential donors of the significance of their papers to history. He modeled his collecting on progressive institutions such as the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. In addition to the usual political papers, he sought the records of environmental groups, social action organizations, and women. Sometimes he was successful, other times not. But the seeds he planted in those early years continued to bear fruit five years later, ten years later, or even two or three decades later.
Over the decades, Bob built a solid foundation for the study of Iowa history. He acquired farmers’ diaries, Civil War letters, merchants’ account books and railroad records. He solicited manuscripts by Iowa authors, and built on the already strong literary holdings of the department. Special Collections has continued to build on the groundwork Bob laid over three decades.
Of course, collection development was not Bob’s only work. He organized symposia, published articles, and edited the journal Books at Iowa and the newsletter of the Ruth Suckow Association. (He had a particular affinity for Suckow, not least because she hailed from his hometown of Hawarden.) Bob contributed to the archival profession through his service on the Iowa Historical Records Advisory Board and his longtime involvement with the Midwest Archives Conference. And he brought history home by presenting talks on a various topics to local organizations and clubs.
But I keep coming back to Bob’s efforts to preserve Iowa history, because I believe that was his greatest achievement. Bob’s vision of what Iowa history could be led him to seek out those aspects that that had been neglected by archivists and historians alike. When women’s historians began asking for sources in the ‘70s, Bob combed the Special Collections stacks searching for documents by and about women.
And then he went a step further. He began consciously seeking out women’s history. He acquired the papers of Minnette Doderer, the League of Women Voters of Iowa, and the Iowa Nurses Association. He had the foresight to contact Mary Louise Smith before she rose through the ranks to become the first female chair of the Republican National Committee; when Smith finished her term she made good on her promise to send her extensive papers to the University of Iowa, about which Bob was especially proud.
When Louise Noun suggested in the early ‘70s that the University Libraries beef up its holdings of women’s historical writings, Bob arranged to meet with her in Des Moines, initiating a relationship that would eventually lead to the creation of the Louise Noun – Mary Louise Smith Iowa Women’s Archives at the University Libraries.
Bob’s careful plans for the archives, together with the papers of women politicians, artists, nurses, and lawyers he had gathered over two decades formed the core of the Archives when it opened in 1992. Equally important was the support and guidance he gave me.
When I began work as the first curator of the Archives, I was pretty green, especially when it came to donor relations and collection development. But Bob was a great supervisor! He taught me everything, from how to write a letter and make a cold call to a potential donor, to the more mundane details—like how to get a car from the motor pool and fill out the countless travel forms. And then there were the finer points he’d learned from his own experience. For example, when you’re out in the field and driving a University vehicle, do not have dinner at a supper club—even if it’s the only restaurant in town—because someone is sure to notice the car with the University seal parked out front and report this “inappropriate” activity by a state employee.
Bob guided me with gentle nudges and taught me by example, as when we visited donors together. Our weekly meetings always included some family talk, a shared laugh or two, and some musings about the topic of the day. I was grateful to have such an empathetic boss who treated me with respect and was interested not only in what I did on the job but in my family and my life outside work. Through the years I worked with Bob, I learned a great deal from him, not only about history, but about how to treat one’s colleagues and staff.
Bob contributed immeasurably to Iowa history but also to the lives of those of us fortunate enough to be around him. Bob’s knowledge of Iowa history was broader than the Missouri, deeper than the Mississippi, and a lot more solid than the Loess Hills. Iowa history is richer for his contributions. And all of us who knew him are richer for his friendship and his affection.
–Kären M. Mason, April 4, 2015
Celebrate women’s history month with refreshments and conversation! Come join us for “Light and Letters: An Iowa Woman’s Experience of Tuberculosis,” a talk by Jennifer Burek Pierce, PhD, on Wednesday, March 25 at 4:00pm.
Prof. Burek Pierce will discuss the importance of reading and letters from home for Marjorie McVicker Sutcliffe during her treatments in a tuberculosis sanatorium, drawing on materials in the Judith Sutcliffe papers here at the Iowa Women’s Archives. An Associate Professor in the School of Library and Information Science, Burek Pierce writes about publishing trends and their implications for libraries, past and present. Her research considers what happens when ideas once shared face-to-face are committed to print. Her books include What Adolescents Ought to Know: Sexual Health Texts in Early 20th Century America (UMass Press, 2011) and Sex, Brains, and Video Games: A Librarian’s Guide to Teens in the 21st Century (ALA Editions, 2009).
On June 28th, 1914, Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo by Yugoslav nationalist Gavrilo Princip. One month later, war broke out across Europe between two alliance systems. Britain, France, Russia, and Italy comprised the Allied powers. Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire constituted the Central powers. As war raged abroad, the U.S. wrestled with the politics of neutrality and intervention. In April of 1917, President Wilson was granted a declaration of war by Congress. The United States thus officially entered the conflict alongside Allied forces.
To mark the occasion of the World War I centennial, we’re remembering Iowa women whose lives were shaped by the war.
One such woman was Clayton-native Louise Marie Liers (1887-1983), an obstetrics nurse who enrolled in the Red Cross and served in France as an Army nurse.
Before her deployment, however, Liers was required by the American Red Cross to submit three letters “vouching for her loyalty as an American citizen.” All nurses, regardless of nationality, were similarly required to provide three non-familial references testifying to this effect. While questions of loyalty and subversion are exacerbated in any war, America’s domestic front was rife with tension driven by geography, class, and ethnicity that raised fears and stoked national debate in the years leading up to America’s engagement in the Great War.
Arriving in 1918, Liers was stationed in the French town of Nevers where she treated wounded soldiers. During this time Liers wrote numerous letters home to her parents and brother describing her duties and conditions of life during the war.
In a letter to her brother, featured below, Liers described her journey to France from New York City, with stops in Liverpool and Southampton.
When Liers arrived in 1918, Nevers was only a few hours away from the Allied offensive line of the Western Front. She was assigned to a camp that served patients with serious injuries and those who required long-term care. Liers noted in a 1970 interview that, by the end of the war, as fewer patients with battle wounds arrived, her camp began to see patients with the “Asian flu,” also known as the 1918 influenza outbreak that infected 500 million people across the world by the end of the war.
In letters home, and in interviews given later, Liers described pleasant memories from her time in service, including pooling sugar rations with fellow nurses to make fudge for patients. Nurses could apply for passes to leave camp and Liers was thus able to visit both Paris and Cannes. In an interview Liers recalled that, serendipitously, she had requested in advance a leave-pass to travel into town for the 11th of November, 1918. To her surprise, that date turned out to be Armistice Day, and she was able to celebrate the end of the war with the citizens of Nevers.
“…devised such tortures and called it warfare…”
Along with her cheerier memories, however, Liers’s papers also describe the difficulties of caregiving during war. She described Nevers as a town “stripped of younger people” due to the great number of deaths accrued in the four years of war. In later interviews Liers offered many accounts of the grim surroundings medical staff worked under, from cramped and poorly equipped conditions, to unhygienic supplies, such as bandages washed by locals in nearby rivers, which she remembered as “utterly ridiculous from a sanitary standpoint…they were these awful dressings. They weren’t even sterilized, there wasn’t time.” Due to the harsh conditions and limited resources, nurses and doctors gained practical knowledge in the field. Liers recalled frustrating battles to treat maggot-infected wounds before the nurses realized that the maggots, in fact, were sometimes the best option to keep wounds clean from infection in a field hospital.
On a grimmer note, Liers wrote to her parents the following:
“As I have told you before, the boys are wonderful- very helpful. When I see their horrible wounds or worse still their mustard gas burns or the gassed patients who will never again be able to do a whole days work- I lose every spark of sympathy for the beast who devised such tortures and called it warfare- last we were in Moulins when a train of children from the devastated districts came down-burned and gassed- and that was the most pitiful sight of all.”
By the time the “final drive” was in motion, Base Hospital No. 14 was filled with patients to nearly double capacity, and doctors and nurses had to work by candlelight or single light bulb. Liers’ wartime service and reflections suggest a range of emotions and experiences had by women thrust into a brutal war, remembered for its different methods of warfare, inventive machinery, and attacks on civilian populations.
Liers worked in France until 1920, and her correspondence with friends and family marks the change in routine brought on by the end of the war. With more freedom to travel, Liers and friends toured throughout France, and like countless visitors before and after, Liers describes how enchanted she became with the country, from the excitement of Paris to the rural beauty of Provence.
Following the war, Liers returned to private practice in Chicago, and later Elkader, where she was regarded as a local institution unto herself, attending over 7,000 births by 1949. She was beloved by her local community, which gifted her a new car in 1950 as a sign of gratitude upon her retirement.
Want more? Visit the Iowa Women’s Archives! We’re open weekly Tuesday-Friday, 10:00am to noon and 1:00pm to 5:00pm.
A list of collections related to Iowa women and war can be found here.
This post was written by Jessica Lawson, Graduate Research Assistant in the Iowa Women’s Archives.
The Iowa Women’s Archives had an exciting visit at the end of July! Five women who were active in the feminist community in Iowa City in the 1970s and were early supporters of the Emma Goldman Clinic for Women visited the archives. Dale McCormick, Sondra Smith, Gayle Sand, Barb Yates, and Francie Hornstein reunited to look through this feminist health clinic’s records and share memories of its early days. The Emma Goldman Clinic (fondly known as “Emma”) is a not-for-profit healthcare and family planning provider whose records are housed at the Archives. Barb Yates was a “founding mother” of Emma, along with Ginny Blair, Robin Christensen, Melissa Farley, Diane Greene, Darca Nicholson, Deb Nye, Patty Pressley, Carmen Salas, and Roxie Tullis.
The collections we brought out for our visitors and the stories they shared reflect the rich interconnections among women’s organizations and social justice movements in Iowa City in the 1970s. In addition to the material in the Emma Goldman Clinic Records themselves, the history of the clinic is woven through the personal papers of two of the visitors (Dale McCormick and Sondra Smith), as well as other local activists like Jill Jack and Linda Yanney and organizations such as the Women’s Resource and Action Center (WRAC). The women laughed as they told stories about staging a feminist revision of Taming of the Shrew, proudly compared their work on Ain’t I a Woman (the newsletter of the Iowa City Women’s Liberation Front) to the work of women’s groups in New York City in the 1970s, and paused to celebrate the memory of Iowa Women’s Archives co-founder Louise Noun. They even found time to help us identify some of the faces in the old photographs.
Women in Politics 2014: Historic & Current Perspectives
Friday, April 18th, 2014, 8:15 AM to 5:00 PM
Old Capitol Museum Senate Chambers
The Louise Noun – Mary Louise Smith Iowa Women’s Archives was founded by two women who understood the critical importance of women participating in politics at all levels.
Join us for a day-long symposium that will examine why women do or do not run for political office, how they govern once elected, and documentation of the history of women in politics. The symposium will wrap up with a policy discussion and action steps.
The symposium is free and open to the public, but please register here, as space is limited.
The Women in Politics symposium is presented by the Public Policy Center in partnership with the Iowa Women’s Archives.