I’m Deborah Holdship, the editor of Michigan Today.
I want to welcome you to my new audio feature, “Listen-In Michigan.” I’m kicking off this series with a two-part conversation featuring Jim Tobin. A writer whose name I’m guessing you’ll recognize because he has written some of the most popular features here at Michigan Today. Jim writes about history for our heritage tab, and he also writes about history for the website: heritage.umich.edu. Michigan’s preparing to celebrate its bicentennial in the year 2017. So I thought this would be a really good time to kind of sit down with Jim and revisit some of his favorite stories that he’s written for both Michigan Today and Heritage, and I thought it would be really fun for you, the Michigan Today reader, to hear Jim tell those stories in his own voice because he is a really great storyteller. So, please come back next month for part two. For now, let’s go and listen to Jim explain why he loves history and why he especially loves the University of Michigan history.
Jim Tobin: I mean, I’ve always had sort of the history gene, and every place I go I’m always interested in the history of that place. I live in Ann Arbor, I went to U of M, my parents went to U of M, my wife went to U of M, my daughters now have gone to U of M, and so I feel deep ties to the place. And I just find it fascinating too, to know more about the history of individual places on campus. A place with ghosts everywhere, with the particular story assigned to each and every place. I think that you have a deeper experience of life when you know something about the past, of a place that you care about, pursuits that you care about. One of the early stories we did was about a law professor named Yale Kamisar who was really a great American hero, a guy whose scholarship led to the Miranda warnings, which are still controversial. But really have brought about a revolution in the rights of the accused people, which is really for everybody, not just for, just for accused criminals. Yale Kamisar had an effect on American history and to look at his scholarship, to look at the, at the unbelievable labors that went into his career of studying and learning, that to me provided a kind of ideal of what a university scholar/teacher is supposed to be all about. So I fall all the prouder of U of M’s history by learning a story like that.
Holdship: It’s interesting because we’ve done a few stories at Michigan Today about people whose names are on buildings, Alice Lloyd, and Helen Newberry, and William Cook, whose mother was Martha Cook. And we get these fascinating reader comments from people saying “Wow I lived in that building, and I never knew anything about that person. Thank you so much. I have such a better understanding of who that person was, now.”
Tobin: It’s true it is a great example. I mean, Alice Lloyd is a wonderful example. She was a, just a terrific woman to know, who was important in the lives of many women has as one of the first deans of women at Michigan. She was a feminist, she was a teacher, she was devoted to her students that she worked with. I found it quite charming to be able to look at Alice Lloyd Hall and know something about this person whose name is on the side of the building. And it is just a way of connecting with the place in a new way. It’s not just the bubble of the present that we live in, the past is always, is always under our feet. And as I say, you just, you just experience life more fully when you have a sense of what happened before, in each of these cases.
Holdship: One of my other favorite stories was the one about Cook, that you did, that we called “Mr. Cook’s Women.” And I found it intriguing that he was also a feminist, and really was interested in educated women and wanted to support the education of women and so he helped build that building and named it for his mother. But [he] also had a lot to do with the law quad which is absolutely one of the most stunning places on campus. And there’s a little irony around his story. So, talk a little bit about Cook.
Tobin: Cook is one of the most fascinating figures in the history of the University. The retired director of the Law Library, Margaret Leary, has written an entire book about Cook and his gifts to the university. Strange fellow, a difficult man. He had anti-semitic views, racist views, and yet, his devotion to the university absolutely made it a better place. He’s a great example of an alumnus who devoted his whole fortune to the betterment of the university. Strange guy, you know, he gave all this money for the building of Martha Cook, and of the Law Quad which was an immense undertaking. He took a very deep and direct interest in the designs of those buildings, and yet he never came back to Ann Arbor to see them. And we don’t really know why except he gave kind of a fleeting reference when a couple of his friends invited him to come back and see what his gifts had led to. He said, “You know, you’re trying to get me to spoil my image, the image that I hold in my mind, those of those buildings.” So we sort of live on campus with the, with the images that mister Cook conjured up in his mind and yet, never saw himself.
Holdship: That’s so amazing because it’s such a beautiful place. Now, you spent a lot of time at the Bentley Historical Library. I’m curious if you’ve ever come across something that really surprised you.
Tobin: The photo documents provide another path to the past. Obviously, that words can’t provide, one thing after another. One of the stories that I like on Heritage is called “The Lost Campus” and it’s really a photo story. And it started when I stumbled on a photograph in a great photo collection at the Bentley called the Sturgis Collection. Local photographer named Samuel Sturgis who not only took his own pictures but also collected older pictures of the city and the campus. And I found this picture of just a building, just this nondescript wood building, and I could tell that it stood about where the Natural Science Building is today it’s sort-of the northwest corner of the diag near the old… one the original hospital buildings… which was called the Pavilion Hospital. It stood right along North University. But here’s just this wooden building, and on the back, it had the label “Campus Beauty.” Campus Beauty? I thought, what is that? Well, through the help of some other documents, I realized it was an outhouse. And so, of course! There were big outhouses scattered throughout the campus before the, before the era of plumbing and toilets which didn’t come about in the Ann Arbor until about the 1880s, 1890s there were outhouses! There had to be! And so there’s a little place for women to go, and there’s another little place for men to go in. So all of a sudden, you realize that the history of sanitation and plumbing suddenly becomes very real because right there in a place that I passed a thousand times, there was a big outhouse. Which reminds me that the President Angell had the first working toilet on the campus. Angell had been president, for not very long, at the University of Vermont. And he was invited to come and be the president of the University of Michigan, which was still in… this was 1870, 1871. This is still kind of on the Western frontier. And the Angells were Easterners, and Mrs. Angell was very reluctant to leave behind a beautiful new presidential residence on the campus of the University of Vermont to go out to this western kind of territorial University. It wasn’t the territory but it felt like that for her, I’m sure! And so one of Angell’s conditions, I’m sure with tongue and cheek, for accepting the presidency at Michigan was that a flush toilet be built-in to the President’s House and lo and behold that became the first flush toilet, I believe, in all of Ann Arbor and certainly on the campus.
Holdship: Well, thankfully we don’t have outhouses on the diag anymore, but we do have all those beautiful trees. And you did a really nice story about the professor who was responsible for planting all those trees, it was Dixon White, right?
Tobin: Right, Andrew Dixon White. That’s one of my favorite stories. Not just a story that I’ve written, but just as a story about the history of the university. It kinda speaks well for the sense of people pitching in and making the university what it became. Andrew Dixon White was a very young professor who was recruited to Michigan just before the Civil War. By the first president, Henry Philip Tappan, White came. He was a historian. and he became a very, very illustrious historian, and ultimately the founding president of Cornell University. But he was in Michigan for a number of years. And when he came to Michigan it was when the campus was still very new, and he would walk around the diag, and although he found Ann Arbor a pretty town with lots of trees, there were virtually no trees on the diag. He had gone to Yale where they’re glorious elm trees. And so Professor White just kind of on his own hook without getting anybody’s permission at first, using its own money, began to plant elms along the pathways that had been made essentially by students going from building to building And that created what became the Diag as we know it, a place of many trees, beautiful trees. And students pitched in, townspeople pitched in, and it transformed the look of the campus, and then White who, who left Michigan after the Civil War would come back from time to time, you know to visit old friends but also to check on his trees. And I think the last time that he came was, oh I think in the 1910s as a very old man, and he would walk from one of his trees to another. And you would talk to people about the boys who had helped him to plant those trees and of course, some of those boys went off to fight and die in the Civil War. And he said at the time, and many years later, he said there are more trees alive than boys.
Tobin: So, that’s… I mean, I want people to walk through the diag and think of Professor White. And in fact, there are probably still a couple of White’s trees around. Of course, Dutch Elm disease took down most of those old elm trees in the sixties and seventies. But, there’s still a couple left, one of which came down just a couple of years ago and we wrote about it in Michigan Today and took a little movie of the, of the old tree coming down and the new tree being planted in its place. So yeah, the Diag itself just as a piece of land, a piece of property, has a, has a lovely history all its own.
Holdship: So beautiful. So now, what are some of your favorite lesser-known tails that alumni should know?
Tobin: Once you start to sort of pull the cap off of the University’s history, you find that all kinds of interesting things that are buried in the archives. Great story that has been told before. We told it, I think we went into more detail about the old 19th-century practice of procuring cadavers for the medical school. Medical students need to have cadavers to dissect and to study the human body. Those had to be procured at a time when grave robbing obviously was illegal. And so, every great medical school needed to employ men who would find their way to dead bodies that could be could be used by medical science. There’s a good deal of material about that, that people hadn’t found before. That was a fascinating story to tell. And that again is an example of how there was kind of a problem that had to be worked out over time, and that story ends with the, with how the University and sympathetic legislators came up with programs for people to donate their bodies for the use of medical schools. And so, that was kind of a grizzly tale that had a happy ending.
Holdship: I love the title of that story too. What is it? Oh, “What a Horrible Business”?
Tobin: Such horrible business that was what one of the commentators said about it. But it was a business that had to be if students were to learn and if patients were to be treated with the best possible medicine so it got worked out in time.
Holdship: We have a lot of kind of the cob and dark tales and our path. The farther you get away from them, not that they become charming, but they’re more… that’s the stuff of yellow newspapers as they’re not as viscerally real today. So…
Tobin: Well it’s true, I didn’t I wouldn’t be I would miss and telling you about some of the, what we still think of as terrible tragedies that happened at the university in more recent decades, but you’re right — the farther back you go, the more quaint murder becomes. And so, there are tales of oh! For instance, when we haven’t told you yet that the celebrated Chicago murders, the young men Leopold and Loeb. One of them, Dickey Loeb, was a U of M student who started his life in crime by inviting his pal Leopold to travel back to his fraternity at Michigan, break-in and end steel valuables that was the first thing that they did that was illegal both science and wealthy Chicago families. And then they went on to, to commit a kind of experimental thrill killing in Chicago. And this is in the early 1920s. They were defended by the great Clarence Darrow and other U of M alum. So that’s a story that has yet to be told on Heritage but we make it to that too.
Holdship: So here you are with your little white gloves on. If people don’t know when you go to the Bentley Library and you’re looking through documents and whatnot. They have some pretty strict rules. You can’t use a pen. Oftentimes, you have to put on some gloves before you can start rifling through their papers and photographs.
Tobin: Yeah you’ve gotta wear gloves when you look at photographs. Yeah.
Holdship: So tell me about the last time or what’s the most recent thrill you got when you were at the Bentley and looking for something? Like, what gets you really excited when you open a box and find something? What’s the something you’re looking for?
Tobin: When you’re doing historical research in an archive like the Bentley Library which is an absolutely first-class archive. People sort of have this image of historians finding this long-secret document that reveals some huge secret. It really… it’s very seldom like that. The much more typical experiences — you find lots of little things that help you create either a narrative of events or a portrait of a particular individual. And when I was working on the story about Dac Lache I did find a few things like that, Lashe who was, of course, this wonderful teacher of astronomy, terribly popular with students from the twenties all the way through the sixties and also closely associated with the athletic program. She was sort of this superfan character who appeared at the 50-yard line before football games. Just a very, very popular personality but I think not a terribly reflective person. You go into someone’s personal papers, and you hope to find letters for their bearing, their souls, to their best friends, or their loved ones. And with Lashe it wasn’t that way. She was a single lady. She didn’t write terribly revealing letters. Instead of sort of assembling a mosaic portrait of her, it was a matter of finding just little needles in haystacks all through her papers. And I was looking for something too kind of in the story. And there was a great moment when I found, I think it was just in a newspaper clipping, that cited the words that she wanted to be placed on her gravestone and this is a quotation from a 19th-century woman poet who wrote, “I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.” I thought that was so lyrical and so perfect for the epitaph of an astronomer, especially a woman astronomer who had been a path-breaker for her gender. So when I saw that clip I thought so that’s the way, that’s the end of my story right there. So that’s the kind of little moment that you have in the archive of finding a piece of a puzzle that completes it, that is really a kick.
Holdship: Okay, that seems like the perfect place to end this first segment. I hope you enjoyed it and I really hope that you’ll be back next month because Jim has a few more stories to share that we couldn’t fit here today. And also a really interesting story up that revolves around the bicentennial of the university. There are a few people from back in the day who would tell you we may be celebrating it 20 years too early. Meanwhile, I’m going to be continuing to experiment with this audio format. If you have suggestions, ideas, comments I’d be happy to hear them in the comments section below. And also all of the stories that Jim referenced today and our conversations are accessible to you via Michigan Today or the Heritage website. So look through the show notes and if you see some links that you’d like to explore I really encourage you to do that. Alright well, thank you so much for listening and of course, go blue!
“A place with ghosts”
Welcome to “Listen in, Michigan,” a new podcast for Michigan Today readers and fans of the audio format.
In this debut episode, historian Jim Tobin, PhD ’86, reflects on some of the heroes, villains, and eccentrics who populate the University of Michigan’s rich, 200-year history. He covers a wide range of lesser-known tales in this 18-minute trip through time, from inspiring barristers to bone-chilling body snatchers.
Are you interested in pursuing some of the stories Tobin teased?
Check out heritage.umich.edu and read The Warrior Scholar to learn more about the legacy of Yale Kamisar. Popular astronomy professor Doc Losh is profiled on the site in a piece aptly named Doc Losh. In The Lost Campus, you’ll learn much more than the history of “the Campus Beauty” and if you’re into cadavers, Such Horrible Business is sure to delight.
Meanwhile, if you’re wondering Who was Alice Lloyd? Or who were Mr. Cook’s Women?, Michigan Today has some answers in the archive. And now, thanks to Tobin, the next time you walk on the Diag, you can think about Andrew Dickson White’s Trees.
We certainly hope you enjoyed listening and invite you to share comments below. Also, if you’re curious about the lead-up to the U-M bicentennial in 2017, please visit bicentennial.umich.edu.
(Audio editing by Alexandra Nowlin; sound design and music by Barry Holdship.)