Notations in Passing: Fragments, studies, and artistic awareness

Architectural drawings and sketches in a folder
Folder with drawings from the Olive Chadeayne Architectural Collection, Ms1990-057

Architecture is a visual field that, much like other creative endeavors, invites both introspection and observation. It often exists conceptually in the space between technical precision and creative daring, while reflecting a thorough understanding and negotiation of actual spaces.

Before getting to finished technical drawings, or even to initial concept sketches, however, many architects are observing and recording the world around them through sketchbooks, notations, drawings, and paintings. These records are often traces of their movements through the world, representing something that struck them in a moment, and that may—or may not—influence their own architectural work later on. Studies of form and dimension, urban landscapes, interiors, buildings, and even the quick suggestion of a corner, roofline, or some transient detail all reveal something about the thoughts—and the processes of learning, inspiration, and working through problems—that inform their work.

A stack of sketches of room elevations and details, drawn on transparent paper.
A stack of architectural sketches from the Susana Torre Architectural Collection, Ms1990-016

Researchers commonly use archival materials to study people, places, and topics, to inform or interpret history, but an accidental effect of looking is often inspiration and personal connections drawn from the objects themselves. Just as we emphasize outside research as a personal process in writing, looking through a visual archive can be useful as a journey of inspiration, with no particular destination in mind.

What have I learned? Content is everywhere. Our ideas are shaped by the formal works we examine and by our surroundings when we stop to look closely—to study the world unfolding in front of us. Inspiration comes from formal works like paintings, documents, or buildings that we encounter and also from things such as the rolling hills, flat plains, rocks, plants, trees, or waves that we see in the landscapes where we live or travel. It comes from the sensations and character that embody the spaces we navigate, and often fully formed ideas come from an intersection between analysis and experience.

Landscape painting of a waterway with trees, shoreline, and a gray boat.
Watercolor and ink, from the The Martha J. Crawford Design Papers, 1961-1974, Ms1994-016

Looking at both the formal and more informal sketches and photographs—the notations in passing that often predate an idea—can be instrumental to understanding the depths of an architectural practice. These studies, which are sometimes fully rendered and sometimes just bits of marginalia, are the visual equivalents of fragmentary thoughts. You can see glimmers of the development of skills, or concepts, or simply a way of understanding spaces and moving through the world. You can piece together the development of a project or the beginnings of artistic practice, and you can learn something about how ideas, technical skills, and perspectives have evolved.

The following selection of drawings, paintings, and photographs from several collections in the International Archives of Women in Architecture (IAWA) presents just a fraction of the available material that illustrates these ideas.

E. Maria Roth:
Along with architectural project materials, Roth’s papers include drawings and sketches from her high school and college years, in addition to a grammar school geography notebook that was completed in 1940 in Hitler-era Germany. These documents showcase the processes of observation, artistic discovery, skill development, and aesthetic understanding in an evolving creative practice.

roth3
Studies from Cooper Union life drawing Sketch book, 1955, E. Maria Roth Architectural Collection, Ms2007-009

roth1

Martha J. Crawford:
An architectural interior designer by training, Martha Crawford was also an artist and writer, which is heavily reflected in the materials in her collection. Many studies of landscapes, interior rooms, and everyday objects capture the ways that she was observing and recording the world.

Dorothy Alexander:
In addition to her architectural work, Dorothy Alexander has worked as a professional photographer for a number of publications. A mockup of her 1974 work, White Flower, which was published in a finished form in the book Women in American Architecture: A Historic and Contemporary Perspective, provides a compelling look at the way Alexander was examining the urban landscape and both recording and puncturing the sense of time and place.

Grid of photographs showing an urban landscape and four abstracted white flowers.
White Flower, 1974, Dorothy Alexander, from the IAWA Small Collections, Ms2009-054

The document includes photographic images placed in a grid, revealing a street scene where time is frozen, moving forward in jumps and starts when a car or leg suddenly enters the scene. The contact sheet layout seems to suggest some linearity, like what you might experience through a sequence of events captured on a roll of film. On inspection, however, this linear timeline is ruptured by the interruption of flowers (a brief mental wandering) that contrast with the cold lines of the concrete and by the car entering the frame. This vehicle doesn’t move across the space fluidly, but rather enters, sits, and disappears. Further, the flowers seem to be a photograph of a drawing or painting, which is reinforced by the inclusion of the edge of the picture frame in some of the images. Reality is abstracted here, or is at least shifting and a little surreal.

More significantly, in the document held by Special Collections the gridlines, notations, and calculations are visible. It’s an object in process where the hand of the creator is still very present and it offers an insight or informal connection that is further removed in the finished piece.

The IAWA is full of the kind of documentation noted here, and offers a rich source for study. Through the support of a grant, “Women of Design: Revealing Women’s Hidden Contributions to the Built Environment” (one of the 2016 Digitizing Hidden Collections grants awarded by the Council on Library and Information Resources), 30 collections will be scanned and put online to facilitate greater use. These collections will become available through the Virginia Tech Special Collections digital library as they are scanned  over the next two years. As always, the physical materials are available to view in the Special Collections Reading Room at Virginia Tech.

The Peabodian, 1939

While looking through some recently acquired items, I came across a yearbook from 1939. Generally, an old yearbook is a good reference book for research about people or a school but they’re also relatively easy to find. This one, however, seemed special. The yearbook is The Peabodian from 1939. There are a few things that make it interesting: the history of Peabody High school, the content of the yearbook, the construction of the yearbook, and how few copies are available for use. This book has history.

It’s clear from the moment one picks it up that this yearbook is special. The cover is faded and stained with a late-art deco style design. The interior contains 111 pages printed on the front only. Each page is mimeographed and bound through two holes to the cover. The photos in the yearbook are black-and-white prints that were pasted to the pages. Looking at each page, the age of the volume is apparent. The paste used to secure the photos began to release at some point and someone taped the photos in. Then, the tape was removed and the photos were glued in again. Because of the failing adhesives over the years, there are some photos missing. Still, the volume is beautifully made and was likely somewhat expensive when it was printed. At this time, the only copies of this yearbook that we know of are the one we just acquired and one other at the University of Virginia.

About the school

Peabody High School was originally known as the Colored High School. Instruction began in 1870 in an old First Baptist Church building in Petersburg, Virginia. It was the first public school established for people of color in Virginia. The first five principals were white men. In 1874, after outgrowing the old church, a new building opened to house the school. It was named for Massachusetts Philanthropist George Peabody because much of the funding for the new building came from The George Peabody Fund. In 1882, the first person of color was named principal: Alfred Pryor. In the early nineteen-teens, the school moved again. The new site had two buildings: Peabody, the senior high school, and Williams, the junior high school – named for Henry Williams, the minister of the Gilfield Baptist Church in Petersburg. This came shortly before Virginia schools moved from a three year high school course of study to a four year course. By 1921-1922, Peabody had an accredited four year high school course of study. It moved again in 1951 to a new facility. Due to Virginia’s campaign of Massive Resistance, the school remained segregated until 1970. When it was finally integrated, the school board decided Peabody would be a middle school and Petersburg High School would be the area’s only high school. The school is in operation to this day as Peabody Middle School.

The yearbook contains a dedication to Mr. H. Colson Jackson. This is Henry Colson Jackson who was born in 1903 in Petersburg, Virginia. During his 70 year teaching career, one of the places he taught was Peabody High School.

Peabodian_Dedication
Dedication page

The dedication reads:

We dedicate this book to one who has held a place of respect and admiration among the students of Peabody High School for many years. One who has been a friend and advisor to all who have asked his help or advice. One who is untiring in any endeavor he undertakes, and who strives for perfection, a man who is cooperative and understanding – – – – Mr. H. Colson Jackson.

More about H. Colson Jackson and his wife can be found in Special Collections and Archives at Virginia State University in The Alice and Henry Colson Jackson Papers and The Colson-Hill Family Papers.

This yearbook comes just a few years after the start of many of the school’s clubs:

  • The Peabody Script (school newspaper) – Started in 1936
  • Dramatic Club – Started in 1937-1938
  • Girls Club – Started in 1937
  • Peabody Melodic Club – Started in 1938
  • Civics Club – Unknown start date but sponsoring faculty changed in 1939
  • Domestic Science Club – Started in 1934
  • Domestic Art Club – Started in 1936, Reorganized in 1939
  • Peabody Hi-y Club – Started in 1932, split into a Senior Hi-y Club (for juniors and seniors) and a Junior Hi-y Club (for freshmen and sophomores) in 1939
  • Public Speaking and Debating Club – Started in 1936
  • Athletics (football, basketball) – Started in 1936

These extracurriculars mostly began during the short time that Clarence W. Seay was principal and then continued once Donald C. Wingo took the position. During the short time they existed up to this point, the clubs were active in bringing art and entertainment to the student body and the area. The Dramatic Club had already participated twice in the Annual State Dramatic Tournament and the Peabody Melodic Club had hosted the Huntington High School Chorus and was raising money to buy a “radio-victrola” (a radio).

At the back of the yearbook, there is a section for advertisements which mostly consists of ads from local establishments in Petersburg, Virginia. In addition to that, there is a full-page color advertisement for Milton Bradley Co. School Supplies. This is indeed the Milton Bradley Company that comes to mind today as a board game manufacturer. Milton Bradley (the person) believed strongly in early childhood education and this led him to expand his business beyond games and into school supplies. Some interesting information on this can be found on the FindingUniverse site or in various biographical articles about Bradley. This part of the business continued until the end of the 1930s depression era.

Looking through this volume of Virginia history, U.S. history, and the history of education for people of color highlights the joy and pride this group of students and educators took in their pursuits. From senior quotes to senior superlatives and debate to football, the students at this school were engaged and amazing.

More about the history of the school can be found on the Peabody High School National Alumni Association site. For more on education for people of color in Virginia and the commonwealth’s struggle to desegregate, check out the Desegregation of Virginia Education (DOVE) project hosted by Old Dominion University’s Special Collections and University Archives. To see the yearbook for yourself, stop by Special Collections at Virginia Tech and we’d be happy to let you take a look.

Dear Eleanor…Affectionately, James

I feel like, at some point, I should stop posting about Sherwood Anderson and his extended circle (this makes #3 for me and #4 total in the 18 months or so). On the other hand, over the last two years, we’ve been able to acquire some great new materials. This week, I’ve got a short set of letters from James T. Farrell to Eleanor Copenhaver Anderson.

This collection contains four letters written by author James Farrell to Eleanor Copenhaver Anderson between February 1952 and May of 1954. The two had some on-going correspondence of which this represents only a small piece. As the letters suggest, one thing the two had in common was social activism–at various points in time, both worked for and supported various rights and activist causes. The April 8th letter is primarily concerned with Farrell’s updates about contacts in the UAW and his efforts to help Anderson get a job with them, if she was interested. (It appears she was not, as she was re-hired by her previous employer, the YWCA, in 1951, and she remained with the organization until 1961.) The third and fourth letters are about some of Farrell’s recent writings on Sherwood Anderson, Anderson’s influence on Farrell, and Farrell’s own writing efforts at the time.

The finding aid for the collection has biographical notes on Farrell and Anderson and you can view it here: http://ead.lib.virginia.edu/vivaxtf/view?docId=vt/viblbv01848.xml. (The nice thing about revisiting it is discovering one’s typos and fixing them!) I hope to have the letters posted on our digital site soon, at which point I’ll include links to those in the finding aid, too. While the collection is a small one, for Special Collections, it’s yet another piece of the Sherwood Anderson history we have here. It tells a little part of his posthumous story, showing how much of an influence and subject he proved to be consistently in the 10+ years following his death. Equally important, it gives us more insight into Eleanor’s continued connections with the literary circle and her own passion for social activism.

University seals and logos

The university has a lot of ways to identify itself quickly: a university shield and seal, a university logo and athletic logo, a motto (Ut Prosim, “That I May Serve”), a tagline (“Invent the Future”), and many other icons that signify who we are. But these have all changed over the years, along with the official school name and nicknames. I’d like to share with you just some of the items from the University Archives, which show the different depictions of our shield, seal, and logos.

From our founding in 1872 until March 1896, the university was called Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College. Below are two photos of students in athletic gear with sweaters that use different versions of the VAMC initials, one with a large V and AMC surrounding it and one with a large C and VAM inside of it.

The VAMC seal below has symbols for the university, some that continue into the current Virginia Tech seal. The VAMC seal depicts a ribbon with the name; above is the “lamp of learning,” a common symbol for an institution of higher education, sitting atop two books; and below are two quill pens. Within the ribbon are several objects, including a bail of hay, a cotton plant, surveying instruments, rifle with bayonet, a book, a wheel, and a plow.

Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College seal
Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College seal

In March 1896, the university’s name changed to Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and Polytechnic Institute, which was often shortened to Virginia Polytechnic Institute or V.P.I. (In 1944, this shortened form became the school’s official name.) At the same time, President John M. McBride and his son decided to develop a motto (Ut Prosim), a coat of arms, and a new seal, which includes the motto and coat of arms.

Since this time, the university seal has included the “lamp of learning” and a ribbon of the university’s name, both carried over from the VAMC seal, and the coat of arms, split into four quadrants. The upper left quadrant is the obverse side of the Commonwealth of Virginia seal, an Amazon woman representing the Roman virtue Virtus defeating royal tyranny, a symbolic reference to Virginia’s involvement in the American War of Independence. The upper right shows the surveyor’s instruments, another carryover from the VAMC seal, to illustrate the university’s commitment to engineering. The bottom left seal is a chemical retort and graduate, an addition from the VAMC seal because of the university’s new (as of 1896) commitment to scientific studies. Finally, the bottom right portrays a partially husked corn cob, a replacement for the cotton plant and bail of hay in the VAMC seal, to represent the school’s ongoing commitment to agricultural research.

Below are other versions of the university seal and the VPI initials from this time period, on just a few objects and art pieces we have in Special Collections. The VPI initials on several objects below are all intertwined, while an earlier photo shows students in athletic outfits with a large V with a small P inside.

Interesting to note is the different versions of the representation of Virtus in the first quadrant of the seal. Officially, the Virtus of the Virginia seal should be an Amazon woman and the victim a Roman-style emperor, but several versions of the university seal depicted Virtus as a man. In the painting below, Virtus is a knight. Unfortunately, in the early 1960s, someone drew Virtus and the defeated person as a caricature of a cowboy or early white settler defeating an American Indian, possibly because of the Draper’s Meadow massacre in Blacksburg’s early history. It was not used in many places, and it certainly wasn’t used long, as the Board of Visitors in 1963 officially adopted the university seal using the Amazon portrayal from the Virginia seal.

In 1970, the university’s name changed one final time to our current title, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, shortened often to Virginia Tech or VT. The seal has remained the same, except with the full new name surrounding the coat of arms, lamp of learning, and motto, but new logos have been developed. In 1991, the university adopted the logo of a shield with the War Memorial pylons and 1872 founding year, and in 2006, the “Invent the Future” tagline was added, which is sometimes incorporated into the school logo. An athletic logo of a V with a T inside was adopted in 1957, much like the VP on the students above, and in 1984, two art students, Lisa Eichler and Chris Craft, won a competition to create the current athletic logo with a V and T connected.

Below are the current seal and two buttons, one with the athletic logo on the left and one with the university logo on the right.

If you’re interested in learning more about university logos, seals, and other traditional university symbols, such as the HokieBird and the word Hokie, I suggest looking at some of these additional sources, as well as coming in to Special Collections, of course!

Less Than the Sum of Its Parts: the W. Dale Parker Papers

Behind virtually any collection of personal papers is an ego, a voice saying, “I was here. I mattered.” Such collections can be indispensable resources in chronicling the lives of the famous and infamous or in offering insights into a particular time or topic. While history may greatly benefit from these collections, however, it is often to egotism, not altruism, that their existence is owed. In the case of the W. Dale Parker Papers (Ms1989-093), we see that egotism taken to an extreme. In more than 20 years of arranging and describing personal papers, I’ve never run across a collection quite like it–one in which a person devoted so much time and effort to celebrating his life while leaving behind so little of real substance.

Dale Parker, management specialist with NASA’s Project Gemini, 1964-1969; self-described aerospace engineer, human relations expert, and presidential advisor. (NASA photo)

Born in Portsmouth, Virginia, Dale Parker (1925-2007) attended the College of William & Mary for a year before being dismissed for poor grades. (He would remain devoted to the school and invariably identified himself as an alumnus of the class of 1949.) During World War II, Parker served in the U. S. Coast Guard for 16 months before being discharged, apparently for medical reasons. Afterward, he took a handful of courses at various colleges, and, following 10 years of coursework, graduated from the industrial engineering program of International Correspondence Schools (ICS). (Though he would later claim to have earned a doctoral degree and thus frequently referred to himself as “Dr. W. Dale Parker,” Parker’s 1968 doctorate from a now-defunct Mexican university was strictly honorary, bestowed upon him for unknown reasons. Likewise, though he sometimes described himself as an aerospace engineer, there is no evidence within the collection that Parker held any educational credentials beyond the ICS industrial engineering degree.)

After working for five years as a draftsman at the Naval Proving Ground, Parker became a plant engineer at General Motors’ Wilmington, Delaware plant in 1951, later serving as an assistant director in charge of public relations and counseling. He worked as a management specialist for General Dynamics – Astronautics from 1961 until 1964, when he was hired by NASA as a management specialist for Project Gemini. (He often credited himself with bringing Gemini from nine months behind schedule to nine months ahead of schedule within nine months.) He retired from NASA in 1969, records suggesting that the retirement was on a disability claim.

Parker remained engaged in a number of other activities after retirement: working as a pro bono counselor; volunteering with civic organizations and charities; and maintaining memberships in a number of fraternal and masonic organizations. He also incorporated a small, nebulous business called Multiple Services; tried his hand at several short-lived business enterprises; and self-published several books.

One of several books self published by genius Dale Parker.

Parker’s papers were donated to Virginia Tech’s Special Collections in several installments beginning in the late 1980s, when the department was aggressively building its collections. Due to his work at NASA, Parker’s papers seemed a good fit for the department’s Archives of American Aerospace Exploration, where they would share shelf space with those of such figures as Apollo astronaut Michael Collins NASA flight director Chris Kraft.

Unfortunately, Parker’s papers have very little to do with the topic of space exploration and very much to do with the topic of Dale Parker. With the exception of bills and invoices, Parker seems to have retained anything that had his name on it. A large portion of the collection consists of such ephemera as membership cards, credit cards, and appointment calendars. Also included are such self-exploring items as personality quizzes, astrological readings, handwriting analyses—anything that could possibly be used to help future historians to understand and explain the unique and powerful mind of Dale Parker. In the collection’s many folders we learn of his short-lived 1977 Florida gubernatorial campaign; his ill-fated attempts to manufacture and market such inventions as the Amy Carter Peanut Doll and the Space Exploration and Technology Trivia Game; and his acquaintance with such celebrities as Bob Hope and Johnny Weissmuller. Prominent in the collection are the many scrapbooks that Parker compiled, including his scrapbook magnum opus: a pair of giant albums in the shape of the state of Delaware. Meanwhile, the records of his work at NASA comprise just a single folder (though, admittedly, the collection contains a handful of other folders about Project Gemini and NASA history).

Given that the focus of Dale Parker’s papers is largely on himself as an individual, providing few insights into Project Gemini, the most noteworthy period of his career, we might be forgiven for thinking the collection unworthy of any attention. Even here, however, are to be found materials of interest.

Parker took painstaking efforts in collecting materials relating to his youngest daughter, Jacquelyn Parker, the first female graduate of the U. S. Test Pilot School. Included are items detailing her personal, professional, and military life, of interest for their relevance to both aviation and women’s history. Also of possible interest are hundreds of letters from Dale Parker’s pen pals in Belarus and other former Soviet states. Written from 1993 to 2006, many of the letters discuss cultural, political, and economic changes following the Soviet collapse; the balance of newfound freedoms against economic hardships; international relations; and the Chernobyl disaster.

Of all the accolades that Parker awarded himself, perhaps none was more important to him than that of political insider. A prolific correspondent, he frequently wrote to politicians to offer advice and ask favors. Seemingly guided not so much by ideology or personal loyalty than an attraction to power and a compulsive need to be heard, Parker donated to both major political parties and indiscriminately offered his advice. Though he did not wield the political power that he claimed (often billing himself as a “presidential advisor” and “White House veteran”), Parker was in fact personally acquainted with a number of prominent politicians and had a knack—largely through his monetary donations—of getting their attention. (In 1977, Parker mounted his own short-lived, independent Florida gubernatorial campaign and gained some attention in the press for his unconventional method of recruiting a running mate through newspaper advertisements.) The collection’s political series provides something of an overview of American political issues and personalities of the late 20th century. Included among the printed material are letters personally addressed to Parker. In addition to office-holders, the collection contains personal notes from presidential family and staff members.

A 1979 letter from George H. W. Bush, apparently responding to a request from Parker to withdraw from the 1980 Republican primary campaign for the benefit of a united Republican Party.

 

Apparently responding to a problem that Parker had expressed about Medicare, then-Senator Joe Biden wrote this 1990 letter, briefly expressing his views on oversight of bureaucratic agencies.

 

One of several letters received by Parker from Rose Mary Wood, Richard Nixon’s personal secretary. In this brief note, Wood thanks Parker and his wife for their continued support of the recently resigned Nixon.

The collection also contains a number of individual items that, while having no great research value, are of interest for their association with a specific time, activity, or person. A “WIN” (“Whip Inflation Now”) button from the Ford era; an autographed photo of astronaut Alan Bean; a letter from Carl Sagan regarding the prospect of faster-than-light space travel: these are among the collection’s many disparate items with a little tale to tell.

So, while we cannot claim that the W. Dale Parker Papers are an invaluable resource for the  scholar of aerospace exploration, they do contain, here and there, items of lasting interest, some that have legitimate research value and some that could perhaps be used as exhibit pieces or instructional materials in a classroom setting.

If nothing else, however, the Dale Parker Papers would be of interest to anybody writing a biography of Dale Parker, and perhaps that was all he ever wanted.

(You can learn more about Dale Parker and his papers by seeing the collection’s finding aid here.)

Where the Rubber (Historical Collection) Meets the Road (Monument)?

One of the first collections we received after I started at Special Collections in 2009 was that of a Union private from Pennsylvania, Charles F. McKenna. (Acquisitions and Processing Archivist Kira here, this week–which I’m only pointing out because this post is about a collection, but also some connections came full circle for me last month).  We know quite a bit about Charles F. McKenna, since he survived the Civil War and went to have a career as a lawyer and judge–more on that in a bit.

The Charles F. McKenna Collection contains diaries, personal papers, and published materials relating to McKenna’s Civil War service. The materials date from 1861 to 1998 (bulk 1861-1913). The collection is divided into two series: Personal Papers and Published Materials. The Personal Papers include McKenna’s original diaries (1862-1865); bound photocopies of the diaries; transcriptions on CD-rom; McKenna’s discharge papers; photographs of two generals; and a letter regarding the publication of Under the Maltese Cross, from Antietam to Appomattox, the Loyal Uprising in Western Pennsylvania, 1861-1865; Campaigns 155th Pennsylvania Volunteers Regiment, Narrated by the Rank and File. The Published Materials include two articles featuring McKenna’s letters; a map of McKenna’s travels; an issue of Civil War News; and Civil War sheet music.

McKenna’s diaries. On the left, 1863-1865, on the right, 1862-1863, from the Charles F. McKenna Collection (Ms2009-031)
Pages from 1862-1863 diary, from the Charles F. McKenna Collection (Ms2009-031). This diary has headers added, probably at a later date, to the pages.
Pages from 1863-1865 diary, from the Charles F. McKenna Collection (Ms2009-031)
McKenna’s discharge papers,1865

Several times since 2009, I or a colleague have brought out the McKenna collection for one reason or another, but to be honest, I haven’t thought about it since about this time last year, when we had it on display for visiting 6th graders (as we did again this very morning). However, I’m getting ahead. Suffice to say, until recently, I hadn’t though about Charles (as I still think of him 8 years after processing his papers and as if we were friends across historical eras) lately. Before we jump into why he popped up again, a little about him (see the link the finding aid at the bottom of this post for more info–there’s a lot to say on him!)

Charles F. McKenna was born in Pittsburgh, PA, on October 1, 1844. McKenna attended schools in Pittsburgh until, at age 14, he apprenticed to a lithographer, due to his interest in sketching. He would continue to sketch throughout his life, even providing illustrations for a published history of the 155th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers he edited. He didn’t successfully enlist in a regiment until 1862, though he tried previously and was delayed due to family issues. He served the next three years with Company E, 155th Regiment, Pennsylvania Infantry and saw action in some of the most pivotal Civil War campaigns: Gettysburg, Chancellorsville, Mine Run, Fredericksburg, and Appomattox. After the war, he became a lawyer. By 1904, he was a Pennsylvania Supreme Court judge and in 1906, became a judge for the United States District Court of Porto Rico [sic]. He returned to Pittsburgh in late 1906, unable to adapt to the climate. In addition to practicing law again, this time with his nephews, McKenna began to work extensively with Civil War organizations. First appointed to the Gettysburg Battlefield Commission, he went to to serve as its president for many years. He also created an index of Pennsylvania soldiers who participated in the Battle of Gettysburg for the Pennsylvania Historical Society. In 1911, then-Pennsylvania Governor John K. Tener appointed McKenna to the newly established County Court of Allegheny County. In 1921, he was elected to complete a second ten-year term. His service was cut short by his death on December 3, 1922.

McKenna had a life story that I got caught up in while researching him and, as is often the case, probably spent too much time investigating while processing the collection. But that’s as hazard of the job. Anyway, that mostly brings us to April of 2017…

Last month, while on route to a conference in NJ, My colleagues and I took a detour into Gettysburg (after all, what else can you expect from four archivists left to run wild?) and we briefly drove through a part of the battlefield, stopping at the Pennsylvania State Monument, which you can climb to the top of to look out across part of the battlefield. We climbed up, walked around, cautiously made our way back now the narrow stairs (meeting with visitors going up on the way), and that was when it hit me, staring at the plaque for a low-number Pennsylvania regiment. Charles had fought here! I wandered my way around the monument, looking up the finding aid and the note which had his regiment listed (yes, you can get cell service on the battlefield) and when I got to the 155th, there he was!

Photograph of the 155th Regiment, Pennsylvania Infantry plaque on the Pennsylvania State Memorial, Gettysburg, Pa. (taken April 2017)
Photograph of McKenna’s company (Co. E) on the Pennsylvania State Memorial, Gettysburg, Pa. (taken April 2017)
Photograph of Charles F. McKenna’s name on the Pennsylvania State Memorial, Gettysburg, Pa. (taken April 2017) Note: The asterisk is attached to the name next to McKenna’s, not his.

And all the sudden, I had this weird moment. Here was the name of this man whose papers I had worked on processing, whose life I had dug into, whose history in the war and beyond I knew, staring at me from this monument where it has been for the last 103 years (the monument was completed in 1914–you can read more about it here). And then I started thinking about the connection between this name in metal and the box back on our shelves. McKenna’s diaries are very much written in a style that suggests he expected them to be read and he even went back and worked on them later (if he didn’t entirely write and/or recopy and annotate them later on). As I wrote in the finding aid back in 2009:

Elements within the diaries suggest they may not have been recorded at the time of the war, but instead, written down at a later date. The loss of chronology and the absence of entries for large periods of time in 1864 hint at this. Several notes in the text also imply additions at another date. After the entry for June 23rd, the following appears: “[N.B. Here my notes ceased, as well as my dates and for the remainder of June and July I will be obliged to record the dates as well as facts from memory][C.F. McKenna. Aug. 1863].” In a lengthy entry for November 30th, an asterisk note reads, “Have since learned that it was Genl. Warren made this report to Genl. Meade.” At the very least, it appears additions were made to the diaries over time.

Some years after the war, McKenna would write the definitive history of his regiment, two copies of which we have in our book collection (and also available online). It’s clear that the war, for many reasons, had a powerful effect on him. In turn, that had an effect on me, standing on the Gettysburg battlefield on a cloudy April afternoon. Charles wanted to be remembered and he is, not only on the monument, but through the materials he created, which Special Collections now preserves. I’m extremely proud of the work we do as archivists (everywhere, not just at Virginia Tech), and I had a unique reminder of that day. Charles was a historian by choice (not training) and he  and his wfforts remain a piece of history for future researchers and scholars. The papers we have here aren’t all there is to Charles F. McKenna in the modern age, either, the monument reminded me. His story is in many places, which is, I think, one of the important takeaways for primary sources–it can often be like a treasure hunt and you have follow the threads where you find them. In this case, that could be to Blacksburg, Gettysburg, or even Puerto Rico.

I’ve probably waxed a bit too philosophical in this particular post, or lingered too long on some boring little details, but there’s a lesson here about archivists, too. We get caught up in the stories of the materials and people we seek to preserve and provide access to every day. And sometimes, in a very unexpected place, we can have a moment where we realize just how meaningful our work can be. Well, at least if you’re me.

The finding aid for the Charles F. McKenna Collection is available online if you want read a bit more about what it includes and about Charles. We haven’t digitized it (yet), but you are welcome to pay us and McKenna’s collection a visit. You might just connect to history in a way you didn’t expect.