October 26, 2011
150 years and 200 stories: Campus historian contributes to anniversary timeline
On Friday, Nov. 4, the UW will officially mark its anniversary with W Day. In Seattle, there will be a celebration from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Red Square with free t-shirts and Cupcake Royale cupcakes. UW Tacomas celebration will be from 12:30-1:30 p.m. in the GWP Atrium and UW Bothell’s from 1 to 2 p.m. on the Codex (outside the UW Bothell bookstore). More information is available online.
How do you tell the story of the University?
As the UW entered into its 150th anniversary year, members of the marketing team may not have known just how it could be done, but they knew who could help write the story.
Antoinette Wills arrived at the University in 1970 to begin graduate study in history. After earning her doctorate, she stayed on to work in a variety of positions, including with University Advancement. Through the years shes become known as an unofficial historian of the UW, as shes given dozens of historical tours of the campus (shes currently seen giving “time capsule tours” on the College of Arts & Sciences site), and even wrote a history of private support for the UW.
So when the marketing team decided to create an online timeline full of stories about the Universitys history, Wills was a natural choice to work on it.
“The plan was that units would submit story ideas, some of which they would write, some of which I would write, and that there would be a series of stories on student life,” Wills said. “There was a list of suggested themes. I kept that list in mind, but I tried to focus on telling the most interesting stories.”
When she began her research, Wills turned to Deborah Illmans books, Pathbreakers (1996) and Showcase (1997), which she said were important as a place to look for faculty stories: Thomas Edmonson and the drive to rescue Lake Washington from pollution, Trevor Kincaid and saving the Washington oyster industry, Henry Benson and improving the pulp and paper industry.
Then, while she waited for departmental stories to come in, she began to search old yearbooks (called Tyee) to get stories of student life. “One of the most delightful surprises was the 1916 Tyee yearbook, which covered Henry Suzzallos inauguration and had a reprint of the speech by Edmond Meany about what it was like to be a student at the downtown campus (he graduated in 1885),” Wills said. “It also had a piece by Henry Landes, who arrived in Seattle in 1895 to teach geology.”
By then, UW had moved to its current site. Landes described a Seattle with mud streets and a streetcar that took 45 minutes to get here from downtown if it didnt fall off the tracks — which it did several times. Denny Hall wasnt finished, and when Landes showed up to teach his first class, there was no furniture in the room and students found boxes and crates to sit on.
Wills also found quirky facts in the yearbooks that would not be found elsewhere, such as that students in the 1920s had a dance on the theme of the Bolshevik revolution. Red was the dominant color and the programs were “cute little black bombs.”
The yearbooks showed her how student life changed over the decades, until finally the books stopped after the 1971 edition. Although she was here at that time, Wills said that as a graduate student she wasnt really involved in a lot of campus life.
“The 1971 yearbook really explained why it was the last yearbook,” she said. “There was that in-your-face quality. My favorite was a sign that said ‘Go ahead and walk on the grass, but dont let me hear you talk about ecology. Even the grass was in-your-face. The editor had the last word, and he wrote about what a miracle it was that the book existed at all because of the political turmoil.”
The yearbook was briefly revived starting in 1986. “I was very grateful to the editors who in 1986 decided that they should have an introductory essay on how students had changed in those 15 years,” Wills said.
In addition to Illmans books and the Tyees, Wills turned to books written for earlier anniversaries — Charles Gates The First Century at the University of Washington and Jane Sanders Into the Second Century — as well as Norman Johnstons The Fountain and the Mountain and Jim Daves and Thomas Porters The Glory of Washington.
She also delved into departmental histories, Columns magazines, UW catalogs, biennial regents reports, UW and HistoryLink.org websites, UW Libraries Special Collections and the Office of the Registrar for student statistics. Clarence Bagleys History of King County and History of Seattle were especially useful because he was one of the original students.
When it came to writing about the earliest years of the University, Wills said her aim was to discourage people from thinking that “we were instantly born as a miniature of what we are now.” The early days were in fact quite tenuous. Even after it opened, the University closed several times for lack of funds.
“I found the names of the early students and I tried to find out birth and death dates, parentage and what they did later,” Wills said. “I found information for about a third of the students. There were students of college age like Clarence Bagley and Dillis B. Ward who had previous education and could take advantage of the fact that Asa Mercer [the first teacher] was a college graduate. But there were a lot of younger students who were not at all ready for that. We didnt give a degree for 15 years (until 1876). Clarence Bagley said the University was 20 years ahead of its time when it was founded. But as Arthur Denny and Daniel Bagley could see, this was a very good thing to do if you wanted a community to grow.”
Of all the people spotlighted in the stories, Wills hope
s people will get to know more about Edmond Meany, who graduated from the Territorial University in 1885 and was associated with it for 50 years afterwards. He was elected to the state Legislature and sponsored the legislation to create the current campus, he was secretary to the Board of Regents, he became an instructor and for a time was a one-man history department. He championed having the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition on campus and was one of the Young Naturalists whose collections became the basis of the Burke Museum. He planted many trees on campus, some of which are still here. In 1935 he died at his desk in Denny Hall while preparing to teach a history class.
“Many people have devoted 50 years or more of their lives to the University,” said Wills, “but Edmond Meany did so at a very formative time.”
Meany was so well known and so respected on campus and in the community, she said, that he was the first living person to have a UW building named after him. The Regents decided in 1914 that the elegant Auditorium, which was built for the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition, should be named Meany Hall. (Its successor still bears his name.)
All told, Wills wrote about 200 brief stories for the timeline, which also offers a chance for anyone associated with the University to put their memories of any time period into writing.
“I love the University, I love history, and I loved getting paid to put those things together,” Wills said of the project. She plans to retire from the University in June, but she wont stray far. She plans to take classes through the Access Program.