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Remembering Bob McCown

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 McCown-Dinner photo

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

 

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Light and Letters: An Iowa Woman’s Experience of Tuberculosis

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)

BurekPierceTalk_March2015_JS

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“Unbossed and Unbought”: Shirley Chisholm and the Voice of the People

Sunday, November 30 is the 90th anniversary of the birth of Shirley Chisholm. The following blog post was written by Anna Bostwick Flaming.

Chisholm stamp

Image via usps.com

Shirley Chisholm, the “unbought and unbossed” African American congresswoman and 1972 Presidential candidate from the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn is the subject of a 2014 limited edition stamp.  Chisholm’s candidacy was remarkable not only because she presented Americans with the prospect of a Black woman in the Oval Office, but also because she promised to wrest electoral politics out of the hands of the rich and powerful.

 

Chisholm campaign flyer

Chisholm campaign flyer.  Lolly Eggers Papers, Iowa Women’s Archives

Shirley Chisholm viewed her campaign as an effort that would give voice to “all Americans.”  In particular, Chisholm opposed incumbent President Richard Nixon as the embodiment of a “minority government” only interested in “representing the wealthy and vested interest.”  The investigation of the Watergate scandal that began with the June 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters and the administration’s cover-up prompted congressional legislation intended to curb abuses in campaign finance.  These reforms were substantially dismantled recently when, in a 5-4 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court in McCutcheon struck down limits on the total sum that donors may contribute to candidates and parties.  Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer took the rare step of reading his dissent from the bench:  “Where money calls the tune,” he cautioned, “the voices of the people will not be heard.”  His turn of phrase suggests not just a warning about the future, but also an understanding of the past.  Just months before Watergate, Shirley Chisholm had used similar language to encourage small contributions to her 1972 Presidential campaign in donation envelopes promising to “give voice to that vast segment of the country that has never had national exposure before.”

 

Chisholm contribution envelope

Chisholm contribution envelope.  Lolly Eggers Papers, Iowa Women’s Archives

 In 1968, Chisholm had become the first African American woman elected to Congress.  In Congress, as she had in the New York State Assembly, Chisholm concerned herself with the legal, educational, and employment concerns of women and minorities.  She was a founding member of both the Congressional Black Caucus and the National Women’s Political Caucus.  During her presidential campaign, Chisholm told Roxanne Conlin – a Democrat who would later run for Iowa governor in 1982 and for the U.S. Senate in 2010 – that 1972 must be the year that “women, blacks, brown, the young, the old, activists for social change, and just people who are tired of reading the election results before the votes are counted – are going to prove that our candidates and our policies and our government are not the exclusive preserve of the financial community, the political establishment and the opinion polls.”  Chisholm wanted to direct her energies on behalf of the concerns of the people.  She offered her outspoken advocacy on behalf of civil rights legislation, the Equal Rights Amendment, and a minimum family income; she opposed wiretapping, domestic spying, and the Vietnam War.

For many, Chisholm’s candidacy signaled a broader movement for change in America.  In 1972 New York Magazine columnist Richard Reeves warned, “It’s happening in Cedar Rapids, folks.”  Edna Griffin, who in the summer of 1948 had led a successful campaign to desegregate a Des Moines lunch counter (more than seven years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama), was “quite surprised” by the support for Chisholm in Iowa.  Griffin, Roxanne Conlin, and Louise Rosenfield Noun, a prominent feminist and civil liberties activist and, later, a cofounder of the Iowa Women’s Archives, spearheaded efforts for Chisholm in Des Moines.  They established a state headquarters for Chisholm supporters in a private residence on Eleventh Street in order to reflect Chisholm’s preference for neighborhoods and community rather than “big business.  Noun later recalled that supporting Chisholm was one of the “most memorable” political adventures of her life.  In Iowa City, Chisholm supporters organized in the days leading up to the precinct caucuses.  They managed to join with the McGovern caucus to elect Sylvia T. Johnson, a Chicago native and part-time member of the Augustana College Psychology Department, as a Shirley Chisholm delegate.

 

chisholm unbossed and unbought

Image courtesy the Lolly Eggers Papers, Iowa Women’s Archives

In campaign literature, Chisholm supporters proclaimed that the presidential candidate transcended categorization as “a woman, and a Black Woman at that;” rather, Shirley Chisholm was a beacon of “new hope for our system.”  Recent events remind us that we must still reckon with the work of the “unbought and unbossed” candidate.

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Election Day! Politics in the Archives

ike day napkin upright

As the site of the Iowa caucuses as well as the home state of countless policy makers and political activists, Iowa is rich with electoral history. As we cast our votes today, we reflect on the decades of campaigning that has brought some of the 20th century’s biggest political names to Iowa, as well as the effect of Iowans in shaping national political life. Above is a napkin from “National Ike Day,” a 1956 event celebrating the 66th birthday of President Dwight Eisenhower. In a letter to event organizer Anna Cochrane Lomas the next day, Eisenhower commented, “I experienced the warm feeling that I was among good and true friends.”

Below are a few more letters and photos that tell stories of the connections between politics and Iowa.

 

roosevelt eleanor to wilma belden-collins

The work of Iowa newspaper columnist and editor Wilma Belden-Collins caught the eye of former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who wrote to her about the United Nations General Assembly. Following her husband’s death, Roosevelt became the first chairperson of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, and remained the U.S. representative to that Commission even after stepping down as chair in 1951, the year of the above letter.

 

bush xmas

Iowa Women’s Archives co-founder Mary Louise Smith was the first woman to chair the Republican Party. Above is a card from the Bush family, written two years before George Herbert Walker Bush’s first term as Vice-President to Ronald Reagan. During his own presidential campaign ten years later, Bush sent a letter to Smith, thanking her for her support: “There is no way I can properly express my gratitude – Barbara’s, too. You worked hard, you stood at my side when the going got tough, and you were with me, your hand on my shoulder, when things looked very gloomy indeed.”

 

clinton gore in cr 1992

hrc note

The papers of state representative Kathleen Halloran Chapman capture a smiling moment with Bill Clinton during his campaign stop in Cedar Rapids in 1992. A handwritten note to professor Suzanne Bunkers the following year comes from first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, and reads: “Thank you for sharing your ideas and suggestions. Bill and I welcome your thoughts. They will be carefully considered as Bill begins to implement his agenda for change in America. Best wishes, Hillary”

 

Want more? Visit the Iowa Women’s Archives!  We’re open weekly Tuesday-Friday, 10:00am to noon and 1:00pm to 5:00pm.

For materials on Iowa women’s fight to secure the right to vote, see our digital collection on Women’s Suffrage in Iowa.