Episode 2: How one cranky grad changed U-M history, featuring James Tobin

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Episode 2: Jim Tobin, Aaron Dworkin, Jack Gartner — “How one cranky grad changed U-M history”

Welcome to episode two of Listen-In Michigan.

I’m Deborah Holdship, the editor of Michigan Today. And in this episode, we’re going to revisit the conversation that we began with Jim Tobin in episode one. Jim is a historian and storyteller and if you listened to episode one, you know that he has a host of interesting, weird, wacky, and obscure tales about the less than told history of the University of Michigan. He had a few more that we couldn’t fit last time, so we’re going to finish that conversation today. In addition, we have a short conversation with Aaron Dworkin, an alumnus and the founder of the Sphinx organization. Aaron returned to the University of Michigan this fall as the Dean of the School of Music Theatre and Dance and as an alumnus of the school, he has some very thoughtful and provocative things to say about the arts and the future of art education at Michigan. For now, let’s go back to Jim Tobin who has a story surrounding the controversy regarding the founding date of the University of Michigan. And I’m guessing you probably didn’t even know there was a controversy surrounding the founding date of the University of Michigan, which is exactly why it’s super fun to know somebody like Jim Tobin who does know these things and who can share them in a very captivating way.

Jim Tobin: Well, this is a strange story and it appealed to me partly because I’m the son and brother of lawyers and this is a very lawyerly conflict. An old guy would practice law in Chicago for many years by the 1920s, named Frank Culver, a Michigan native and a Michigan alumni who fiercely loved the history of the university. When he went to school in the 1800s and then well into the 20th century people around the university, and people in Ann Arbor, assumed that the university had been founded in 1837, the first classes weren’t actually taught until 1841, but 1837 was seen as the time when it was decided that there would be a university in Ann Arbor. Frank Calvert took a different view of this. He knew that there had been something called the University of Michigania also known as the Catholepistemiad. I’m think I’m the only person in Western civilization who knows how to pronounce that word.

Holdship: I must give you props for that by the way.

Tobin: (Laughs) I practice!

Holdship: It’s the scariest word ever!

Tobin: So, this institution had been created in the city of Detroit when Michigan was still a territory. In 1817, it was created by the territorial government with a governing board. One of whom was Gabriel Richard, a rather famous priest in Detroit history. Augustus Woodward was the guy who came up with the crazy title of Catholepistemiad. They founded a legal organization that Frank Culver believed had been perpetuated in the form of the university that was that was created in Ann Arbor 20 years later. Culver wouldn’t even agree with 1837 as the as the formulating date in Ann Arbor but that’s another story. So he made a ruckus about this in the 1910s and 20s and it came to a head when he persuaded others and the Alumni Association that he was right and that 1837 was wrong. But there were powerful people including the reagents and Wilfred Shaw who was the head of the Alumni Association, who thought that this idea of Detroit in 1817 was crazy, yes there had been this silly Catholepistemiad that had been formed then but there hadn’t really been a university in Detroit which is perfectly true. But it got fought out, and it turned out that the Supreme Court of Michigan had recognized the existence of a corporate entity called the University of Michigan, founded in 1817 and that yes indeed it was the organization that should be recognized as the founding. And so the stubbornness of this cranky old lawyer in Chicago, Frank Culver, really won the day. And now some private schools like Harvard and Princeton go way back farther than that. But the university has a very good claim to being one of the most important early institutions of higher education in the country. Michigan was part of that whole tradition of the great public universities that have that really have played enormous roles throughout the country’s history and the country just wouldn’t be the same without these institutions.

Holdship: This story about the founding of the university as one example of a style you tend to follow. I’ve noticed you like to take a historical moment or a specific event and boil it down to a single individual’s experience. So talk to me a little bit about your process in writing a story and infusing it with interest for the reader.

Tobin: I’ve tried to tell nonfiction stories that are as interesting as a good piece of fiction and the best stories are about individuals, and usually individuals who are in some way trying to overcome a difficulty and that reminds me of a of a heritage story that I’m fond of which is about the experience of students who went to U of M during the depression, that includes Arthur Miller. It also includes a lesser-known writer, but a favorite of mine, named Edmund Love who wrote a series of autobiographical books, including just a terrific book which is called Hanging On which is a memoir of his life trying over many years to get to the point of graduating from U of M., He struggled because his family was in deep financial difficulty. Love set out to try and get money to finish his senior year by winning a Hopwood Award. And so he took a novel-writing class and the professor was sympathetic to Love’s industry to just how hard he worked to try and write this first novel and so Arthur Miller was in his class where a number of other pretty accomplished student writers. So the time for the Hopwood awards came there in the Union Ballroom and the wars are announced and course he doesn’t win. So he starts to wander off and the professor spots him, takes him aside and says “Mr. Love I want to speak to you for a moment.” He says “You know, the judge at the novel-writing competition this year was none other than Sinclair Lewis, celebrated author of Main Street and Babbitt and so on. Now, Mr. Love, I have some bad news that Mr. Louis said that your novel was perhaps the worst student novel he had ever read.” So you know, thanks Professor for telling me this.

Holdship: (Laughs)

Tobin: But he says, “That’s not the end of the story. Because I wanted to tell you, Mr. Love, that I had two students in that class who are going to become professional writers one of them was Arthur Miller. I don’t have to tell you why I hold that opinion of him. But the other one is you because I’ve never known anyone, any student in any of my classes, who labored so hard to develop his own abilities, and you’ve developed your abilities to a considerable extent and I believe you have the tenacity, perseverance, and the native talent that will ultimately lead to a career as a professional writer for you.” And he was right. Edmond Love did become a professional writer and a successful one. Not on the scale of Arthur Miller, but he was a successful working writer and he wrote some wonderful books, including that book Hanging On which I recommend highly to people who are interested in the history of the university.

Holdship: Miller graduated in 1938, and we often hold him up as one of our most beloved and talented alumni but prior to him coming to U of M the poet Robert Frost also came to the university in the 20s, not as a student, but as a professor: a professor in residence, a poet in residence?

Tobin: Poet in residence, right. But, he did teach. In the 20s the number of students who were lucky enough to have Robert Frost sit and critique their poetry and talk to them. He went to teas at a professor’s house and chatted with students long into the night, there are students who have extraordinary memories of Robert Frost in Ann Arbor.

Holdship: It just doesn’t even seem real. That’s what I love about it! It’s just like these great stories… but they’re actually true, and they happened here. It’s just incredible!

Tobin: (Laughs) What is it about a story being true that makes it even better!? I don’t know, but that’s the key to writing a great narrative nonfiction is to tell a story, but it’s also actually happened. You know that’s a great boost.

Holdship: Yeah! And it happened here like you can sit in the same place…

Tobin: Exactly!

Holdship: Or in fact, Frost’s desk is in the library and I opened the drawer one time just because I wanted to touch the same handle that Robert Frost may have touched once.

Tobin: Exactly. And you know when you start to know more about the history of the place you have those moments all the time, you know, not necessarily a connection with the great and the distinguished like Robert Frost, but just people who were trying to do the same thing that you were trying to do that you’re trying to do now as a student, or as a professor, as an instructor. That you’ve all been engaged in this 200-year-long endeavor to learn and to study into the past knowledge along.

Holdship: You know it’s interesting to note too that there are at least two Frost poems that are attributed to his time here. One is called “Spring Pools” which he wrote while he was living on Pontiac Trail in Ann Arbor and one called “Acquainted with the Night” which is just such an evocative title, I love it. So now I’m going to switch gears a little and revisit the law quad. The last time we talked about William Cook, the philanthropist, and benefactor for the law school, but we talked mostly about him. I wanted to kinda look at the architecture of the building this time, in particular, the stonework, there are these little core bells – little stone figurines – that were created by an artist named Ulysses Richie out of New York City, and they represent a number of different aspects of life. But in particular, there are six that represent the first six presidents of the university. So if you’re walking through the central archway into the law quad and look up you may find President Freeze looking back at you, President Angell, President Hutchins, or Haven, or Tappan, or Burton. Some of them are wearing eyeglasses which I find very funny and charming. Talk a little bit about those little guys. I don’t know if a lot of people know that the Presidents are there keeping an eye on us all.

Tobin: I just love those little figures, and this is another good example of how sort of studying history to lead you to new insights and then doing this research of course, I learned about them. There’s a Cook story there too. One of the originals was showed the figure of the secretary of the university in that day and age, a man named Shirely Smith, who was an important guy and did a lot of writing about the university. Somehow or other his image was carved into one of those core bells and Cook found out about and was outraged and he ordered the architects to just smash the stone. Get rid of that altogether, and put a new figure in its place. So poor Mr. Smith never made it into immortality at the Law School.

Holdship: That is a tragedy! Among the other ones too that represent the seasons. There’s a guy a little sheaf of wheat under his arm, there’s a little football player guy, a little guy with a tennis racket…

Tobin: Right, and you know, there’s little details like that all over campus. Gosh, you walk into what I believe now is the oldest classroom building remaining on campus which is Tappan Hall which is where the Department of History of artists headquartered. That’s a lovely old building where if you walk up and down the staircases and through the corridors you are in an environment that housed students of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. That’s to experience the campus on a whole new level. You know we love the gorgeous new buildings that have been constructed but that attention to detail that was characteristic of the earlier buildings, I just think is terribly rewarding. And when you know a little bit about who built those buildings and why they were built that way, you get a sense of this long train of events and people who make up the history of the place, it’s just like knowing the history of your own family, you are more likely to carry on the traditions of your family in a good way if you know that history. I think it’s the same with University.

Holdship: Well on that note, I’d like to thank Jim for sharing these great little tails. Now we’re going to jump into the present and hear from Aaron Dworkin, the current Dean of the School of Music, Theatre, and Dance.

Aaron Dworkin: Over 17 years ago I was a student at the School of Music, Theatre, and Dance as violin performance major I got both my bachelor’s and my master’s degrees at Michigan, but it was also at Michigan that I was able to found the Sphinx organization which over the past almost two decades has really been able to grow into kind of the leading organization addressing diversity and inclusion in the performing arts. So now to kind of come back and to kind of be welcomed home after almost took 20 years to the school is really, very very special for me. And I have a distinct memory as an undergraduate student going into the Dean’s office, Dean Paul Boylan and sharing with him that I had this idea for an organization, and could I get the school’s help and support. So to now be able to have the opportunity to sit in that office and have my professorship carry his name is really a tremendous honor. This is really I believe a unique time in the trajectory of the performing arts in our country and even around the world. But, the ways in which we define a performing arts career have changed dramatically over the past several decades, and there are so many incredible opportunities that our students have to build a life in the performing arts. And one of those aspects is how they are relevant to their communities, to society. How is their art form relevant? How does it speak to who we are? So, I hope to be able to engage in those conversations here at the school and to ensure that we are preparing and educating our students to be relevant to their art forms, and as well empower our faculty, the institution, and our students to have these important fields of study be relevant to our communities and to our society. The arts are our soul as a nation. It is how we express ourselves not only to one another but to ourselves, and at a time when I think unfortunately there are too many divisions and barriers man-made that we somehow construct between cultures or classes or different geographical bases that we all have the arts cuts across all of that and gives us a window into those who are different from ourselves. And I think that not only builds tolerance of difference and others but also builds our own sense of self and the arts, that doesn’t just happen by magic! There is a craft, there is a discipline, there is a study to these forms of our field And and it’s my hope to be able to help ensure that we develop those crafts to the highest level of excellence.

Holdship: Okay well that’s it for episode two. I sure hope you come back for episode three. If you’d like to subscribe to the podcast in the meantime, please refer to the show notes. You should see a link there that says subscribe to “Listen-In Michigan.” It’d be super cool if you would subscribe. Also, I’d love to hear from you. I’m about to play you a little message that was on my answering machine from one of my favorite alumni Jack Gartner, he’s 91 years old and he’s a 1948 graduate of the university. Jack came to Michigan on the GI Bill, post-World War II and had a really interesting student experience. He had to live out at the Willow Run Bomber plant off of 94 because the housing was at such a high premium when all the GIs returned from the war. Jack met his wife Marjorie there during that time, and he has a very cute story that I asked him to share with you which he left on my answering machine.

Jack Gartner: Hi Deborah this is Jack Gartner, I have a short story for your program. It has to do with the end of World War II and Michigan got swamped overnight it was a matter of doubling its enrollment from 12 thousand to about 24 thousand students, and since there was no room at the inn so-to-speak in Ann Arbor, well the university thought the B24 bomber plot from the administration and picked up the west end of Willow Run. Picked up the single dorms for single men and women and they picked up all the married housing for the married couples at that time. I was housed in dorm one, and the females were housed in dorm two. And the rest of the GIs were housed in dorms 3 through 15. Marjorie was a nurse during the war and she got into dorm 2. Of course, I didn’t know her at the time. Location of the doors was such that they were parallel to each other. Marjorie had to work at the West Lodge cafeteria and serve all the single GIs particularly. Marjorie and the girls in order to either reach the bus which was right outside of West Lodge or go to work inside of West Lodge cafeteria. They had to run the gauntlet between dorm one and dorm two. And the guys in dorm one would see them, they would open their windows and whistle at them and pound on the sides of the building. Just to be obnoxious, you know. I spotted Marjorie on one of these runs. My gosh, she had a beautiful face and a beautiful figure. And I thought I’ve just really got to have a date with that gal, I just didn’t know how to do it. But right across the hallway from me in dorm one was a real handsome looking guy, older fellow, I think he was a major in the Air Force. And he knew a number of the gals, and I said, well will you go down on the chow line in the cafeteria when you see the ladies serving gravy and potatoes. And I’d like to get a date with her. I didn’t know her name I told ya I just wanted a date with her, I just said that I’m sure she’s serving potatoes! (Laughs). And sure enough, he got the right gal, introduced himself to her, and introduced me as a fellow who just wants to have a date with her. She evidently said, “yes I’ll put him on the roster.” We were married for 45 years, we had four children. And I stayed in touch with my friends from Willow Run. My friend Peter retired to central Mexico, and I hear from him literally every single day. He’s 92 years old. So the Michigan relationship has really been significant in my life I guess that concludes that story if I get an opportunity to talk about any other short stories I’ll let ya know.

Holdship: Alright, well that’s it for now! I look forward to having you back next month. Thank you so much for listening, and as always, go blue!

“It’s just like knowing the history of your own family … “

Welcome to Episode 2 of “Listen in, Michigan,” a new podcast designed for Michigan Today readers and fans of the audio format.

In this episode, we pick up the conversation we began in Episode 1 with historian and storyteller Jim Tobin, PhD ’86. Here, Tobin explains how one cranky U-M alumnus named Frank Culver forced the University administration to amend the founding date of his alma mater, essentially adding 20 years to the life story of U-M. Meanwhile, Tobin gets a little bookish this time with stories that touch upon Arthur Miller and Robert Frost; we also learn some interesting details about the stone work in the Law Quad.

In addition, we hear from alumnus Aaron Dworkin, an accomplished violinist recognized internationally for his leadership and advocacy of diversity in the performing arts. Dworkin was appointed dean of the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance (SMTD) in July. He is the founder and president of the Sphinx Organization, a leading national nonprofit based in Detroit that was established to increase diversity in the arts through a variety of programs that address four main areas: education and access, artist development, performing artists, and arts leadership.

It’s a great time for Dean Dworkin and SMTD with the reopening of the renovated and expanded E.V. Moore Building — amazing new facilities for all the artists and performers coming through U-M. In addition, the school’s Department of Theatre & Drama is celebrating its centennial this year with a series of special events and performances.

And finally, we have a short message from alumnus Jack Gartner, MBA ’48, who was showcased in a Michigan Today story called Coming home, about the experience of WWII veterans who spent their U-M years living at the Willow Village at the Willow Run B24 Bomber Plant, about eight miles southeast of the Diag. Post-war housing was at a premium in the late ’40s, and some 3,000 students lived at the Village, creating their own unique campus community.

We certainly hope you enjoyed listening. Feedback is welcome. We would love to hear your stories. Feel free to email mtoday@umich.edu or leave your comments below.

Hear more “Listen In, Michigan” podcasts. Subscribe at iTunesTunein, and Stitcher.

(Production support and editing by Alexandra Nowlin; sound design and music by Barry Holdship.)


  1. Boyd Fellows - 1960

    Who cares?


    • Clark Cumings-Johnson - '63

      I get it! You’re cranky, too.


  2. Amanda Munson - 1998

    This was so timely! For years my family has had a Michigan letter opener with a 1937 university seal. It perplexed me as I was the first U-M grad in the family AND the seal was not the same as the one I had (that had the word “the” and the date 1817.
    The story goes that this letter opener was part of a desk set given to my grandfather’s aunt by her boyfriend/fiancée who was in medical school at U-M, presumably in the early 1900s.
    I knew from a U-M history course that the 1817 date reflected the founding in Detroit and that the founding in Ann Arbor was later (1837). I just inherited the desk set and spent some time digging around to get the full story of this desk set that captures a true snapshot in U-M history. I really enjoyed hearing a bit more about this history.


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