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Fall 2019: Second Acts


by David A. Phillips H’83 

Approaching retirement in 2003 after 36 years at Wabash, I began to think about what I would do in the ensuing years. After more than four decades as an inorganic chemist, I felt the need for new challenges. Working to help preserve the College’s institutional memory seemed like an obvious choice. 

The College is blessed with an impressive archival collection and a dedicated and skilled archivist in Beth Swift, our strongest advocate for the College’s history. She agreed to mentor me, allowing me to indulge my life-long passion for history and biography. So I began. 

During the past 15 years I have managed to produce booklets, talks, and a number of articles in this magazine. My current long-term project is “Scientists at Wabash,” biographical sketches of everyone who taught science here for 2+ years from the opening of the College until my retirement in 2004. 

Early on, Beth introduced me to the Hovey Scrapbook, the Archives’ most prized possession. It turns out that Edmund Otis Hovey was the College’s first archivist. At the Semicentennial Celebration in 1882, his children, Horace and Mary, gave Wabash the Scrapbook—a collection of documents saved by their father during his 45 years at the College. 

This got me reading more about Hovey—just about everything I could lay my hands on. Gradually I came to appreciate the importance to the College of this remarkable man. As Osborne and Gronert state in Wabash College – The First Hundred Years, “The story of Hovey’s life from 1832 to his death [in 1877] is the history of the college itself.” I believe that Beth, and her predecessor, Johanna Herring, would agree with me that Hovey is the most important person in Wabash history. In telling its story, the College pays more attention to Caleb Mills, our first professor, who was, for all practical purposes, hired by Hovey. Without Mills, Wabash would have been a different place, but it would have survived. Without Hovey there would have been no Wabash. 

one of the pleasures of archival research is the accidental discovery of information providing leads to interesting stories. Since I am seldom constrained by deadlines, I have the freedom to pursue these leads. Hovey’s Rock—my single foray into “archeological research”—is a good example. 

During my archival explorations I encountered three articles on the Hovey Rock Battle, all written by members of the Class of 1876. I soon discovered the location of the Rock, in the Arboretum just across the walk from the south wing of Center Hall. Over the years the boulder had settled into the ground, so that the inscription— “Class of ’76 to Dr. Hovey”—was barely visible. A few minutes with a trowel were sufficient to expose the entire inscription. Not long after the rediscovery, Campus Services raised the boulder, so that the entire dedication was visible. 

The archives serves as a connection to the past for many outside of the College. Several years ago Beth suggested I stop by the archives to meet Sarah Gustafson, whose father, James Bert Garner, had graduated from Wabash in 1893 and served as Peck Professor of Chemistry from 1901 to 1914. Sally was doing research for an article on her father’s invention of a gas mask during World War I. Later, Sally would return to do research for a biography of her father: Pioneer Scientist: The Story of James Bert Garner, Gas Mask Inventor

Sally was Garner’s twelfth and last child, and by the time she was born her father had left Wabash for the Mellon Institute in Pittsburgh, where he had a productive career with many patents to his credit. In 1950 Wabash awarded him an honorary degree, and Sally recalls walking on President Frank Sparks’ arm to a luncheon for the honorary degree recipients in the Caleb Mills House. 

It turns out that Professor Ann Taylor’s first Crawfordsville residence was Garner’s former home on the corner of Pike and Grant. Discovering the stories and connections is part of what makes archival research so much fun.