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Thursday, 08 July 2010

Collection offers a glimpse into a bygone age

W. B. Bowler
Old times: A portrait of W. B. Bowler, Cornell's first black student.

Imagine a Cornell where students are happy to get a C, fraternity meals are served by uniformed waiters, and graduating classes have only 100 people. Thanks to a trove of memorabilia collected by Mike Whalen '69, reminders of that bygone era are now available for viewing in Kroch Library. The more than 200 mementos chronicle Cornell's formative years, with items dating from 1868 to the Twenties.

Whalen, a CALS alumnus and longtime University employee, donated the collection in December as a retirement gift to Cornell. "I wanted to give something back for all the years of employment and education," he says. "This seemed more personal than a check."

Already an avid collector of vintage photographs, Whalen started hunting down University memorabilia while helping to create a website for the 2006 New Student Reading Project. The book was The Great Gatsby, and the site showcased student material from the Roaring Twenties. During his research, Whalen came across the Cornell Graphic, a photo-heavy student magazine that was fairly racy by the era's standards. Because Kroch held so few copies, Whalen trolled the Internet for more. "It got me thinking about what else I could find," he says. Over the next few years, Whalen—who held a variety of posts on campus during his four-decade career, from lab technician to budget director—amassed a trove of Cornell memorabilia, primarily purchased on eBay.

Cascadilla Hall
Stereo photographs of Cascadilla Hall.

The items, which Whalen estimates are worth about $5,000, now reside in nine grey boxes on the shelves of Cornell's Rare and Manuscript Collections. Visitors, who are required to wear white gloves when viewing the materials, are allowed to access only one box at a time. Among the highlights are student scrapbooks containing such keepsakes as party invitations, photographs, and freshman caps, some partially burned in the traditional end-of-the-year beanie bonfire. The collection also includes diaries and letters home—complaining about everything from professors to the weather— and grade reports, many showing GPAs of 70 or lower. (Back then, Whalen notes, 70 was considered a decent grade.) His most notable find may be a photograph of William Benjamin Bowler 1872, believed to be Cornell's first black student.

Cornell Graphic
The Cornell Graphic, which sparked Whalen's collecting craze.

Whalen's favorite items are stereo photographs, which appear to be three-dimensional when viewed through a special device. One depicts students playing baseball on a diamond in the middle of the Arts Quad. "The buildings are recognizable, but what's going on is not," he says. "The fact that it's the same, but different, is fascinating." Though Whalen says he's glad that the collection is in a library where it will be properly conserved, he admits that giving it away was like parting with an old friend. And even after making the donation, he hasn't kicked the habit entirely. "I'm ashamed to say it," he admits, "but I'm still collecting."

— Erica Southerland '10

Comments (1)Add Comment
written by Michael L. Whalen, July 10, 2010
While I greatly enjoyed Erica's article, I need to correct one small error. There are photographs in Kroch Library of students playing baseball on the Arts Quad during the nineteenth century, but they are not stereo photographs and they are not part of the collection that I donated. I was less than clear when I described them to Erica. Mea culpa.

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Last Updated ( Thursday, 08 July 2010 )