Advocate for a College’s History

By Steve Charles
  December 18, 2003

"There is a history in all men’s lives."
- Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part II

Few people have been so diligent and effective as Johanna Herring in preserving the history of the lives of Wabash men, its faculty, and the College community. By the time she retired in July after 18 years as the College’s archivist, she had developed the Robert T. Ramsay, Jr. Archives from a document storage house into a place where the College’s history is gathered, preserved, and promoted, even as she’d transformed the role of archivist from that of collector into advocate.

Johanna herself would dismiss such a statement as over-the-top and making "too much of a fuss" about her retirement.

But no alumnus charmed by her southern hospitality and her interest in their stories would dispute it. Nor would any visiting historian looking for information on Lew Wallace, Thomas Riley Marshall, John Merle Coulter, or any of the College’s most famous sons.

Ask any Sphinx Club pledge, senior history student preparing a paper, freshman doing research for his tutorial, fraternity officer writing the history of his chapter, Bachelor or Wabash yearbook editor, or professor preparing a chapel talk.

Or ask Head Librarian Larry Frye, who calls hiring Johanna in 1985 "one of the best decisions I have made in my time here. Thanks to Johanna, the archives is no longer that warehouse that a few know about. It has become a well-used resource for our community, our alumni, and visiting scholars."

Not to mention magazine editors.

When I arrived at Wabash in 1995, I realized three things I needed to do before writing about this place: spend time in and out of class with students and professors; listen to alumni; and learn the history. For the latter, I couldn’t have found a more patient and enthusiastic teacher, nor a more knowledgeable guide.

Johanna brought the history of the College to Wabash Magazine readers through our "From the Archives" department, and some of our most successful features and themes were sparked by her questions:

Did I know that two of the best-known Hoosier school painters had connections to Wabash and that one of them—J. Ottis Adams—was an alumnus? Did I know that the scientist who came up with the method for mass-producing penicillin in time for the D-Day invasion was Andrew Moyer, Wabash man, as was the "father of American cave exploration"? Or that General Earl Johnson ’42 spent a Christmas Day giving Charles Lindbergh a tour around Guam?

I didn’t, but, thanks to Johanna, we all do now.

For Johanna, history evolves with each new anecdote or artifact. Sometimes it is shrouded in mystery: Exactly how did a beautiful set of 19th century photographer William Henry Jackson’s proofs end up in the archives?
Sometimes it’s a surprising connection, like the story behind that lampshade signed by Duke Ellington and his band members.

Sometimes it’s hilarious: Whatever happened to that statue of Abraham Lincoln and his dog and why did Byron Trippet cancel its dedication?

Under Johanna’s leadership the archives made great strides in organizing and preserving the College’s photographic history, and she’s put into motion plans to digitize and further protect that collection.

But just as important, she opened wide the doors of the archives, beckoned us in with library displays and magazine articles, welcomed us into the history of our place and people, and invited us to read and question the old stories, dig deeper, find the facts, and wrap our arms around the past.

Johanna will call that last line "syrupy and melodramatic." She’ll have a thing or two to say, as well, about my accompanying this piece with a photograph of "Aunt Jenny Blair" reading to her grandson, future Wabash man John Blair. The woman in the picture is too old, the analogy I’m implying forced and too corny.

But she once told me it was her favorite photo. And, when you think of the Wabash stories she’s gathered, preserved, and given us, it fits.