Processing collections

The vast majority of the work of an archivist is what we call “processing.” It’s the step after we take materials from the donor, and the step before we present it to the user. So, it’s a pretty important step.It involves organizing and preserving the materials that have come in, and once processing is done, the collection should be ready to live out its life in the archives with very little intervention by the archivist.

Processing is one of my favorite things, because it’s non-stop discovery. I’m currently going through and processing, in a very rough way, the files given to the Archives by Dr. Tom Lyttle, of the Theatre department. These files are all the project documents for each theatre production since 1977. It includes programs, correspondence, receipts, reviews of the shows, cast lists, evaluation forms by cast/crew members, and photographs.

One of the hardest things for a college archivist to find are materials that actually show us student life. These files are a wonderful resource for such material, but it takes a lot of processing to find it sometimes. Just by delving into the files for the 1970s and 1980s, I’ve found so much that interests me, historically. A few of the highlights so far:

File folder for the one-man show “Sam Houston standing in his own blood”, which was performed as part of the Texas Sesquicentennial. It starred Charles Krohn, who is still a professor of English at the University of St. Thomas.
Excerpt from a student evaluation of “what…you learned by being part of this production”, mid 1980s
Students rehearsing for the only musical of the whole decade, Scenes from American Life, 1983. I can only assume they are driving a bus together.

Texana, Autographs, and Forgery

The special collections at UHD have never gotten much notice, since there are no Gutenberg bibles lying around, nor any kind of “precious” books that one normally associates with such collections. However, when the collection was physically situated with the University Archives in 2013, we discovered that the core of the collection is actually very special indeed.

Most of the books in the Special Collections are “local” history: Texas and Houston, with a special focus on oil history. Not until we dove into the books and looked at them carefully did we see what all the fuss was about: nearly all the books are from the private library of James A. Clark, a prolific author of many works, the most famous being his 1952 book “Spindletop.”

Clark held different jobs throughout his lifetime, including the public relations manager at the famous Shamrock Hotel, sports editor for the Galveston News,statehouse correspondent under Governor Allred, and the author of a long-running oil column called “Tales of the Oil Country.”

Clark passed away in 1978, and his books came to UHD sometime after that, although it’s unclear how it happened. The collection includes several autographed copies of some very famous Texas history, including one which, it turns out, is a forgery. Clark clearly enjoyed buying or obtaining autographed books, and at some point must have been thrilled to buy a first edition of the now-famous Shamrock and Cactus: the story of the Catholic heroes of the Texas Revolution by William M. Ryan. It was signed by the author with the note “to my good friend H.P.N. Gammel with my best regards…Christmas 1936.”

Karl Hans Peter Marius Nielsen Gammel, or H.P.N. Gammel, was one of the first people in Texas to preserve Texas history (he saved the laws of Texas from fire in 1881 and kept them safe in his home before republishing them a few years later). He was, and remains, one of the most important booksellers and collectors in our history. Having a book like Shamrock and Cactus, signed by the author and to Gammel, must have felt like quite a coup.

Unfortunately, Gammel is known to have passed away in 1931, five years before this book was published. Ryan, if he was indeed a “good friend” of Gammel, would have been well-aware of Gammel’s death. In Houston in the 1960s and 1970s, however, forgery of Texas historical documents, including autographs and other documents, was big business. Without Wikipedia at hand to check the death dates of famous people involved in publishing, scams like this were easy to  implement. No doubt James Clark suffered more than just once at the hands of the Houston forgery rings, just as many collectors of Texana have*. But so far none of the other autographs in our collection have been proven to be false.


*To read more about Houston’s forgery community, read Texfake: an account of theft and forgery of early Texas printed documents, by W. Thomas Taylor (1991).


Purchase of STJC by the University of Houston, 1974

It has been difficult to find the “true” story behind the purchase of the South Texas Junior College by the University of Houston, although the outline is quite straightforward: in 1974, South Texas was in talks with HCC to merge. But in a very quick turn of events, UH bought the College in August, foregoing the state coordinating board’s approval with the reasoning that they were not merging at all. President Hoffman and the University of Houston attorneys argued that UH was merely buying assets to expand its own downtown operation which had been closed due to building projects. In a private memo from spring 1974, one of President Hoffman’s staffers remarked that if HCC and STJC were allowed to merge, it would be disastrous for the University, which might never get another foothold in downtown (earlier that year they had lost their property there when it was bought to build the Houston Center).

The state coordinating board was furious when they were informed of the purchase, but it was a fait accompli.  President Hoffman worked swiftly and tried to use his influence to make the way easier for the changeover, but South Texas had been, until its purchase, a private junior college, and now would need to orient all of its business operations and procedures to being a public junior college in just three weeks. This was a massively complex undertaking, since all of the students registered to begin classes in August needed to be vetted and approved by the state as eligible candidates for in-state tuition. Molly Wood, then the Registrar, recounted how they worked every day and every night for seven days under the supervision of a state auditor to get nearly 5,000 students verified for eligibility. In the end, though, in late August 1974, the College opened its doors as the downtown branch of the University of Houston. That year, commencement was held with the regular UH graduation in Hoffheinz Pavilion, and everyone at One Main was a “Cougar,” but it was not an easy arrangement. One reason for this was that the faculty of the Junior College had all moved over into faculty positions, per the terms of the purchase. The faculty of UH did not think that their colleagues at UH’s “downtown college” should be afforded the same treatment or tenure, since many of the faculty from STJC had only their masters degrees.

The solution was relatively simple, however: the next year, University of Houston Downtown College became its own administrative unit, adopted the Gator as its mascot and its marketing colors went from red and white to green and white. The student newspaper reinvented itself as the Bayou Review, and Dr. Dykes formally resigned as President of the College, passing the torch to Dr. J. Don Boney, formerly the head of HCC. As an African-American and with a PhD in urban education, Dr. Boney personified the kind of commitment to the community on which the College had always prided itself. As Elliott Johnson, Chairman of the Board of Trustees said, the College was “dedicated to making high quality educational self-improvement and citizen-enlightenment opportunities available to every diligent Houstonian.”

Under Dr. Boney, the College went from a junior college to a four-year institution in 1979, though the fight through the state legislature and coordinating board was incredibly difficult (thanks, of course, to the still-fresh insult of not petitioning the state for the right to merge with UH in the first place). Cementing its place, however, as a fully-fledged university within the UH system was key to the institution’s health and success in later years: open enrollment and low-cost, UHD could continue to offer the under-served and nontraditional students of Houston an education that focused on their needs and programs that they wanted.


The Miscellaneous File

As a young archives student in graduate school, I was always taught never to use “miscellaneous” as a folder title, because it encourages lazy thinking about organization. If you just dump things into a miscellaneous section, you probably aren’t trying very hard to find a home for those objects and they are basically unfindable in the future.

As a professional archivist, however, I find the “miscellaneous” folder to be the best part of any archiving project. People use miscellaneous files a lot in their personal archiving, because people are not archivists and it’s a very practical solution to keeping random, seemingly unrelated documents somewhere safe. What this means to me, then, is that the Miscellaneous file is usually full of interesting tidbits, handwritten memos, drafts of documents that are no longer in our collection at all. Usually the Miscellaneous files are the ones that show you the personality of a creator: the humorous side, the human side.

Today while going through the Miscellaneous file of the Faculty Senate, circa 1978, I found these wonderful (and anonymous) memos, which show a great deal of information about the interpersonal relationships at the College at that time. Miscellaneous files can be full of treasures.

Memo, late 1970s to David Fairbanks, sender unknown
Handwritten note to David Fairbanks regarding Library Committee, sender unknown, date unknown
Notes from an Executive Committee Meeting. Probably from around Christmas based on the doodling.
Notes from an Executive Committee Meeting. Probably from around Christmas based on the doodling.

The Pits

In 1980, the University of Houston Downtown College had just received the green light a few months earlier to start issuing four year degrees. With this new designation, students were staying at the College longer and seeing it more and more as a “home away from home.” The M&M building, having been built essentially as a retail and warehouse space, had not been planned with large gathering spaces in mind. The students decided that they needed a place to hang out between class periods, to study and catch up with peers and hold meetings. The only place to do that was the cafeteria. David Wallace, then Director of Student Affairs, said “students cannot sit in a cafeteria and make friends and chat, due to the noise.”
So the student body asked for an unused space on the third floor, and with their own labor, transformed it into a student lounge. Labor was volunteer, and all materials were donated. A design class at UH Central used it as a project to design a space with a 1930s feel, and the University contributed paint supplies and air conditioning for the space. Soon many students pitched in to help. The students dubbed the lounge “the Pits.”
The tables were just spools for large cable, donated by Southwestern Bell. The mural was done by student artists.

feb80 2pits photo2 (2)pits photo3

Additional items were found to be brought in, like vending machines, a juke box, a pool table, and pinball machines. The student photographer for the Bayou Review student newspaper, Mike Marx, said “the Pits represents the most organized effort ever put forth by both students and faculty to accomplish something worthwhile for the school.”

The grand opening on May 2, 1980 was a star-studded event: Dr. Charles Bishop, then-President of the UH System, Leonard Rauch, Chairman of the Board of Regents, and all of the administration of UHDC were on hand for the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Not only was a large plaque dedicated, with all the names of everyone who worked on the Pits, but the Mayor himself, Jim McConn, proclaimed May 2 “UHDC Day in Houston” in honor of the “dedication” shown by the UHDC community to bring its students a place of their own. The Houston Chamber of Commerce also issued a statement, congratulating the students on their perseverance and hard work, and called them “a credit to their generation.”

In the end, nearly 60 members of the UHDC community participated in the effort and built a comfortable space for students to take time off to socialize and relax. For a commuter campus, and in a building that was already bursting at the seams, it was controversial but necessary, and it bore fruit, as students were able to become more of a community, together.

The Pits when it was finished.
The Pits when it was finished.

Early History of the University of Houston-Downtown

Written circa 1987; scanned from an original typed copy signed only LME

South Texas Junior College, a private junior college offering only academic courses leading to the AS and AA degrees, had prospered until the very early 70’s when the Houston Community College System came into existence. Not able to compete with the far lower tuition, the junior college experienced rapid declines in enrollment dropping from approximately 5,000 students in 1970-71 to 2,500 in 1973-74.
The problem was compounded by a president who had replaced the president of many years, Dr. W. I. Dykes. The new president, Dr. Reagan, virtually depleted the fund balances of South Texas and made sweeping moves which demoralized personnel. Long-time administrators were replaced by others, and he ranked the faculty with no prior consultation of the Faculty Senate. The faculty rebelled, went directly to the Board of Trustees with documentation sufficient for Dr. Reagan’s removal from office. Dr. Dykes was persuaded to come out of retirement and resume the presidency until the crisis could be resolved.
Realizing the college’s dire financial straits, Dr. Dykes in consultation with Mr. Elliott Johnson, Chairman of the Board of Trustees, determined that affiliation with another higher education institution was the only alternative. Houston Community College’s President, Dr. J. Don Boney, was approached in Fall 1973. Dr. Boney was very interested and worked diligently to have South Texas Junior College become a campus of the Houston Community College System. HCC was at the time only one of three community college systems in Texas, at that time, to have no tax base and no independent board of trustees (Houston Independent School District trustees served as the community college system’s trustees). The politics and logistics of merger developed into a quagmire of obstacles. In early summer, 1974, negotiations ceased.
In July, 1974, Dr. Dykes and Mr. Johnson approached Dr. Philip Hoffman, President of the University of Houston and Chancellor of a newly evolving University of Houston System. Dr. Hoffman involved Mr. Douglas Mclean, Vice President for Finance. These four individuals, with no consultation outside the group, crafted an agreement subsequently approved by the South Texas Board of Trustees by which the University of Houston System assumed all assets and liabilities of South Texas Junior College and declared it the fourth campus of the University of Houston System. The University of Houston System Board of Regents approved.
The two boards, and the four negotiators–Hoffman, Mclean, Elliott and Dykes–were the only ones who knew of the action until early August. Dr. Hoffman called Dr. Boney to give him early warning since he had previously been in negotiations for a merger with the community college system; some South Texas personnel were informed. Then in a newspaper headline, the Houston community, state and governmental officials, and others learned of the new addition to the University of Houston System.
Especially noteworthy was the fact that the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board was informed by the media even though they were charged by the State Legislature to approve all proposed additional campuses. With a new Coordinating Board Commissioner, Dr. Kenneth Ashworth, functioning in a new environment that emphasized ceasing the proliferation of universities and curtailing program duplication, there was consternation at the state level. Had the state not been in the beginning stages of a transition of Commissioners from Bevington Reed to Ashworth, the “slight of hand” by which the University of Houston-Downtown came to be might have had a different ending. But, with a thinly veiled excuse of reestablishing the University of Houston’s Downtown School, an adult education branch campus which had existed until a few years previously when the downtown location’s lease was lost, the University of Houston-Downtown (then known as the University of Houston Downtown College) was not officially approved, but was ignored and allowed to exist.
The Downtown College acquisition met with similar consternation at the University of Houston. Outrage prevailed. President Hoffman was censured by the Faculty Senate. Had it been known by more than the inner circle that University of Houston resources, both human and financial, would be used to support the first year of operation of the new campus, the resulting hostility can only be imagined.
Dr. Hoffman called Dr. J. Don Boney in early fall, 1974, and told him he wanted him to become the first permanent president of the Downtown College. This transpired August 1, 1975. Dr. Boney took over a campus acquired strictly as an “opportunity purchase” with no thought to its role within the system, population to be served, or mission. The campus began the transition–private to publicly funded, two-year to four-year, unranked to ranked faculty.
For two years all energies were focused on the development of baccalaureate degree programs, hiring faculty and staff to support the burgeoning student body, developing administrative support systems, and implementing a new organizational structure. The new structure was implemented before asking Coordinating Board approval, further “blackening” the reputation of the campus.
In 1979 yet another back-room deal, again without Coordinating Board approval, was cut. This time Dr. Hoffman was not in on the contrived strategy. On the floor of the Texas Legislature, then Lieutenant Governor Hobby introduced a bill, legislatively authorizing the Downtown College. This legislation made the campus legitimate and knowledge of the inner circle at UHD working with Lieutenant Governor Hobby is still closely held. While not endearing the campus with the System or Coordinating Board, it was probably the most significant event in the College’s history.
Upon Dr. Boney’s death in August, 1979, Dr. Schilt assumed campus leadership in 1980 and was the “great healer” with the University of Houston System. In order to get the first four-year degree programs approved, the University of Houston and the Coordinating Board were placated by an emphasis on career-focused degrees. Non-duplication was stressed. The first approvals were for degrees in Business Services Technology, Business Management Technology, Engineering Technology, and General Studies. These titles somewhat disguised our business and liberal arts offerings.

Moving to the modest offerings of today with titles which are fairly understandable has taken much effort, patience, confidence building, and persuasion. A base is laid for future progress but only finesse and political savvy can bring program expansion to desired for fruition.