Episode 26: Locked in at the Bentley, featuring Brian Williams

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Episode 26: Brian Williams — “Locked in at the Bentley”

Hi, I’m Deborah editor of Michigan Today.

In this episode of “Listen In, Michigan” my guest Brian Williams, assistant director and archivist for university history. Brian works at the Bentley Historical Library which is home to all the historical records of the university and the archives of the athletic department. It’s one of the largest archives of its kind in the country

The Bentley’s massive collection of materials involving the history of the state and its people includes more than 45,000 linear feet of primary source material, 10,000 maps and 80,000 printed volumes. There’s 1.5 million photos in its archive. I mean I use the images all the time in those heritage stories by Jim Tobin. So you’ve seen plenty of them. And of course there’s an extensive digital collection as well.

But it’s always the most fun to visit the Bentley in person. It’s one of those mysterious places where all the interesting stuff takes place behind the scenes. So like you give you a request to a staffer and they return later with a pushcart loaded with boxes pertinent to your search. Never are you invited to join the staffer back there which just enhances the sense of intrigue. You get the message that something very special goes on back there. And, it does. Experts are restoring precious documents, rebinding books, digitizing film, preparing items for proper long-term storage and a host of other things.

There’s even a vault; a vault where they store some of the most precious artifacts. The original handwritten charter to found U-M, Fielding Yost’s first contract, original correspondence from characters like Alfred Hitchcock and John Dillinger.

Once I learned about this vault I decided I needed to get inside there. I mean that’s the beauty of my job, right? So I asked Brian Williams for a tour. I grabbed my recorder and I headed to the Bentley.

Now to get to this vault you must first enter the inner sanctum of the archivists. Though not as magical as I originally imagined, this behind the scenes area is still incredibly impressive. Seemingly endless rows of black metal shelves hold like those gigantic ledgers like Ebenezer Scrooge would use and countless dusty volumes.

There’s governors row where the papers of Michigan’s leaders reside. There’s a section for really old student scrapbooks. There are canisters of film and boxes of correspondence and drawers filled with negatives. You just keep walking past rows and rows and rows of those black metal shelves and eventually you find yourself at the vault.

And a quick apology to those of you with wild imaginations like my own; the vault is really just a locked metal cage. But it’s still super cool. It’s several feet long with shelves on either side of a single aisle.

So come with me as Brian walks us through pulling down boxes from either side and showing off the goods. There’s plenty of ambient sound. Some intentional and some not so much. And, I apologize in advance for saying WOW about 40 times. Here’s Bryan.

Brian Williams: We’re in the vault in the Bentley Historical Library and it’s kind of where the best of the best lives. But yeah it’s kinda lined with boxes, volumes. Some things are in special cases denotes their significance that our conservation staff built a trade handle into. You’ll see old spines of books and albums. A lot of these albums are just pictures of generals, officers and men in Michigan regiments. A lot of Civil War letters and correspondence. One of the most interesting Civil War things is the diary here Lucius Shattuck. He was a soldier from Plymouth, Michigan and he served with the 24th Michigan Infantry Regiment, part of the Iron Brigade, and the diary has a bullet hole through it.

Holdship: That’s amazing. So it’s in this special box that’s been made…

Williams: Yeah, it’s a special tray case that’s been made by our conservation staff…

Holdship: So, it’s the size of a mole skin..

Williams: and little daily penciled entries.

Holdship: Wow.

Williams: and these are from 1863 and so he’s recording everything in here. The last entry he makes is June 30 and he talks about the battery moving into place outside of Gettysburg. He is killed the next day, July 1. And you can see where the bullet went through and partly shattered this diary. It was just an incredibly dramatic artifact.

Holdship: No kidding.

Williams: …gives a lieutenant in the 24th and they went into position and the first day of Gettysburg he was killed.

Holdship: …like even just seeing photographs but then seeing actual artifacts like that’s even more intense.

Williams: Yes, it really brings it home. It kind of makes it personal. It’s just looking at everything that’s here on the shelf in these boxes They’re really rare, particularly valuable documents. There’s trading journals, fur trading journals that go way back to the pre-statehood. We have records about the exploration of the State of Michigan. Notable celebrities, literary figures, correspondence with all of these people, the founding documents of the university are here. Gold medals from the Olympians who were athletes at the University of Michigan…

Holdship: I mean it’s amazing all the stuff that you have. And even when you come in the front of the library, you don’t realize how much is behind the scenes. Like, I had no idea until I came back here with you guys.

Williams: Yeah, until you’re inside the Bentley, it’s hard to tell the scope of it just from the parking lot of the street. It looks like a single level building. Once you’re inside the stacks of three levels. We have 50,000 boxes here on site and an offsite facility as well. So the wealth of material is amazing here and all kinds of formats, audiovisual, paper, photographs, maps, books, ledgers….

Holdship: All kinds of good stuff… all kinds of secrets and mysteries. You know you never know what you’re gonna find in here.

Williams: That’s right.

Holdship: I mean you usually start thinking you’re looking for one thing and you wind up finding something else more often than not.

Williams: A lot of it’s really serendipity as you’re going through something, it looks pretty innocuous and then you’ll find some gems in there just buried in the middle of that. One of the examples is the Gerald Ford letter we have when he wrote after his campus visit here. And we’re just going through the records of the Board and control of intercollegiate athletics there’s all kinds of details about scheduling, logistics. When games will be played, who the contracts will be, who the opponents will be and just all kinds of really mundane matters.

And then there’s a letter from a student writing about his visit how much he enjoyed that, and wants to be a wolverine. Look at the letter and it’s signed by Gerald Ford on stationary from the High School in Grand Rapids Michigan where the Official archives from the University of Michigan who’s collecting statewide. So that’s how we have civil war diaries and things of that nature. But we have the founding documents of the University of Michigan.

Holdship: Wow.

Williams: …this special leatherbound tray case. It says papers relating to the early history of the University presented by CI Walker. They’re in this elaborate trade case…

Holdship: …and who was CI Walker.

Williams: He was a reagent from the University of Michigan, a lawyer and yeah it’s encapsulated in mylar. And so it’s inside the vault encapsulated in mylar in an acid free-folder in a special box so you can really tell it’s really significant. There’s something special about it.

Holdship: Yes.

Williams: So it’s a handwritten draft and it’s the act to establish the Catholepistemiad or University of Michigania. It’s from 1817 and the handwriting is Augustus Woodward. And so when you think of Woodward Avenue in Detroit, it’s named for him. And this is basically our constitution, the founding document laying out the vision in 1817 and Detroit what the University of Michigan was going to be.

Holdship: That’s amazing.

Williams: So yeah just holding this and realizing you know this is kind of, the beginning of the entire University of Michigan. And just to see that is a really powerful thing. And in that same box we have some records again from the board and control of intercollegiate athletics and it’s just a simple one page document on Michigan Athletic Association letterhead. And it’s got a nice little logo seal colored in blue. But it’s a single-page dated October 4, 1901. It’s the football contract for Fielding H. Yost. So brought him here to Michigan, signed the contract October 4.

It’s just a single page, but it says that Mr. Yoast shall coach to the best of his knowledge and ability the University of Michigan football team, the salaries paid out in five installments, the first for $300 and then it increases to 400. And then, the key is a $1000 payout at the end of the season. You have to make sure he stayed to the end of the season. He had never been at any place more than one season. And so they weren’t sure if he was going to stick around, but he ended up sticking around for quite a while.

Holdship: Well when you’re getting paid that well what can you do, right? You gotta stick around.

Williams: Exactly. And I try and imagining of what the contracts look like now with all the writers and addendum and …

Holdship: No kidding this is just like three or four paragraphs and the money spelled out and a signature all on the front side of one sheet of paper.

Williams: Yep.

Holdship: That’s really great.

Williams: And they had that they’ll cover a sum for traveling expenses and for him to stay in Ann Arbor and living expenses while in the city. And so Yost really did literally roll in town not too long before the season, start training the team, and then he would leave at the end of the season. Go to as business enterprises in West Virginia. It was quite a while before he actually lived in Ann Arbor for good.

Holdship: Hm okay.

Williams: Rolled through that season scoring a point a minute. So the contracts for the next year gave him a little bit of a raised to $2750. I like to come to the vault when they’ve been working at too many mundane things or doing things that are digital. To come down here kinda get recharged. And see all these original documents handwritten. I mean it really is a privilege to work with these, preserve them, and have that responsibility to make sure that they’re available to future generations. That 100 years from now people can see that founding Constitution establishing the university, that it’s here. So it’s part of an awesome responsibility we have as archivists.

Holdship: And just I love to see the old book bindings and whatnot. Albert Kahn’s ledger. Oh, there you go.

Williams: Yeah he built a few buildings on campus.

Holdship: Yeah just a couple.

Williams: Yeah we’ll go down here and I’ll show you a couple of the really notable autographs.

Holdship: Oh yes.

Williams: So this is a box that has the intriguing title “Special Correspondents”. Why is it special?

Holdship: Oh gotta be something good in there.

Williams: And you just kind of browse through all the folder titles on hear you see really notable… John Quincy Adams, Susan B Anthony, George Armstrong Custer, James Buchanan, Dwight D Eisenhower, Clarence Darrow. He was, attended law school here. He is involved in several notable trials. Some correspondence, I think, writing back to law school colleagues.

Holdship: John Dillinger!

Williams: John Dillinger the outlaw. He’s basically on the run being chased by police and he stops to dash off a note to the chief of police of Port Huron, Michigan. And he says if he’s gonna get arrested by anybody he really thinks it should be this lieutenant Don Leonard who’s been after him for quite a while. And he also he wrote several letters like this to Henry Ford praising the car because he was fleeing all these police.

Holdship: And the Ford really helped him out?

Williams: Yeah he’s like you’re Ford really held up well. Dash off a note to tell you that.

Holdship: So did this come through someone else’s papers or?

Williams: Yeah we have the Papers of Don Leonard who’s referenced in that. And he was, worked in law enforcement for most of his career. So I was talking about, I mentioned earlier that letter from Gerald Ford, this is it. The letterhead is South High School of Grand Rapids.

Holdship: “Dearest Mr. Kipke”

Williams: Yeah. “I want to thank you and Mrs. Kipke for entertaining me so wonderfully during my visit toAnn Arbor. I had a marvelous time and fully enjoyed every moment of the stay. If there’s anything I can do to repay you I certainly would.” And he goes on to say how much he wants to be a Wolverine. And one of the real treasures here are the, we have the papers of Arnold Gingrich. He grew up in Grand Rapids and he graduated from Michigan in 1925. In 1933 he found Esquire Magazine and starts publishing serial stories and articles. We ended up with several manuscripts from Ernest Hemingway that were just short articles published in Esquire.

Holdship: That’s incredible.

Williams: Yes so it’s amazing to see these articles.

Holdship: Wow. With the edits and the…

Williams: Yes, straight off the typewriter. You know, from the, you think this is a Ernest Hemingway’s original type-written copy. Has all the editorial marks of Arnold Gingrich and others. Some of them are Hemingway’s own edits.

Holdship: Oh my God. That is wild.

Williams: “The butterfly in the tank”. It says it will be in December 1938 issue. “Night before battle” by Ernest Hemingway.

Holdship: Wow

Williams: And then this is probably the most significant. This is the draft for “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”. And so it originally says “story by Ernest Hemingway”. And it has the annotation “a long story”. And so it started in the August 1936 issue. We found all this correspondence with F Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Louis Satchmo Armstrong, just all the figures of the day. “So I think there ought to be a film star named Ann Arbor. She should be blonde, beautiful, and caressable. Sincerely, Alfred Hitchcock.” This is uh, well here’s another interesting folder. Ty Cobb.

Holdship: Oh wow.

Williams: To Charles S Kennedy. He’s a doctor in Michigan, U of M graduate, and a reagent. So he happened to be the doctor for Ty Cobb, the Baseball Hall of Famer. And so these are all these letters he’s writing back and forth and they’re always in green ink. Handwritten green ink. “Tyrus R Cobb”.

Holdship: Wow

Williams: He’s in Menlo Park California at this point. And this is a pretty neat letter. January 11, 1948. “In here I was glad to see Michigan dominate over Southern California.” So he’s talking about the Rose Bowl win. Michigan had just played out there. “People out here in California think they are more or less dominant in athletics and they gloat so about it. So it’s good to see them get their ears pinned back.” So he was really thrilled to see that Michigan had done well and won the Rose Bowl out there in California.

Holdship: Yes, Sincerely. It’s so much more interesting than just a bunch of emails on a screen.

Williams: Yeah exactly. Yeah, again that physical nature. Just seeing that, being able to hold this letter.

Holdship: I wonder why he did chose to write with green pen all the time.

Williams: Yeah I’m curious about that.

Holdship: I guess that was just his thing.

Williams: Yeah, that was a thing but yeah they’re written several months apart several different years and they’re all in green ink. So he definitely was partial to that. Alexander Graham Bell.

Holdship: Wow.

Williams: And they’re written on Bell Telephone company letterhead. He’s writing to Professor Watson at Michigan University and this is 1878. And he had published an article about the invention of the telephone and so Alexander Graham Bell was intensely interested and he’s writing about the rival claim that’s going on by Elisha Gray over who invented the telephone. There’s some competing narratives about who truly invented it. Yeah, just a real, just kind of amazing job.

Holship: Jack Dempsey.

Williams: Yes sports figures, literary figures, Charles Dickens.

Holdship: Charles Dickens!?

Williams: I’m not sure what that one is.

Holdship: That’s a short one. What does he say?

Williams: That one’s hard to read his handwriting. You can definitely make out the signature.

Holdship: No kidding.

Williams: Yeah I’m not… That, that cursive I can’t read. And I’m not sure what that script is.

Holship: That box is full of treasures.

Williams: Here’s Langston Hughes. The poet. And so it’s a typewritten letter which much easier to read than the Dickens. “Dear Dick,” this is Dick Boys who was a professor of English that he’s writing to. And so it’s a letter thanking him for hosting a visit. He closes by: “I hope I’ll get back to Ann Arbor before the next centennial. It’s one of my favorite campuses. I like it.” That’s kinda neat.

Holdship: Thank you Langston! “I like it.” Period. The end.

Williams: Yeah. Glad to think he likes Ann Arbor. You know, a lot of these letters are with Robert Frost.

Holdship: Oh yeah.

Williams: And he was a poet in residence. And this is all the correspondence with the President Marion Burton and Robert Frost. And even a few galleys for some poems he wrote while he was here. These are some of the back-and-forth about negotiating the poet in residence. Or I think Frost even referred to at some time that he was Michigan’s idle fellow. So he wasn’t formally teaching although he did an awful lot of teaching during his years here. He’s appointed in 1921 and then comes here again in 1924. He lived out on Pontiac trail and his house the house he lived in has since been moved to the Henry Ford Museum in Greenfield Village. But yeah just thinking of all these letters in Robert Frost handwriting.

Holdship: Wow that’s amazing.

Williams: Yeah then you have the typewritten response from the President and a handwritten reply from Frost.

Holdship: Yeah. “My dear Frost.”

Williams: Yeah, you can tell as they go on it gets a little more casual as they become better friends. So it loses that formal tone that you see in some of the early ones.

Holdship: Yes, I think that’s so neat that he was here.

Williams: This is, well yeah, let’s stop here. This is Lyndon B Johnson.

Holdship: Oh yeah.

Williams: What we have here is the original notecards, they are typed index cards that are typed script of the commencement address that Johnson gave here in May 1964. And it’s at that address that he’s outlining the “Great Society” speech. He was reading from a teleprompter and this is kinda the backup in case something went wrong.

Holdship: Uh-huh.

Williams: Yeah these are the original cards. They are held together with little ring. Archivists realized that was a really notable speech and we should document it. And so they wrote and asked if they could have a copy of his speech. And so it’s really remarkable letter that came back with it, typed and has the White House letterhead. But it says, “after a great search of inside suit coat pockets, the cards that the President used for his Ann Arbor speech were found. So it’s a pleasure for him to sign them and send them to you.”

Holdship: What a kick!

Williams: Yeah. And so you can just kind of visualize that too. They’re going through all these sport coats. Looking through the pockets and figuring out where they are.

Holdship: At last.

Williams: And we actually have a video of Johnson at the Michigan Stadium giving his speech and we can see before he’s boarding the helicopter we can see it looks like he is putting these in that coat pocket.

Holdship: Wow.

Williams: So, it’s pretty neat to have it from that angle.

Holdship: History making for sure.

Williams: Yeah I imagine the Lyndon Johnson Presidential Library is probably envious that we have it here.

Holdship: I’m sure they are. Yes, sometimes it’s surprising what we have that I’m sure others would like to have in their own collections.

Williams: Yeah. Martin Luther King. Here’s a letter signed Southern Christian Leadership Conference letterhead. Martin Luther King: President, Ralph Abernathy: Treasurer, Andrew J Young: Executive Director. So he’s writing to Eugene Ransom at the University of Michigan. Ransom extended an invitation for King to come and speak at the university. This is actually a letter of him declining. Yeah, and King says “Because I am away from the church so much during the week I’ve had to adopt a policy of not accepting more than one Sunday engagement away from the church and any month.” Here’s another interesting collection John and Lenny Sinclair.

Holdship: Oh yeah

Williams: They are kind of 1960s radicals here in Ann Arbor and managed MC5. So a lot of these are original posters. This is the original poster for the…

Holdship: Wow that’s awesome!

Williams: … Free John Sinclair Political Rally.

Holdship: Ten for two baby!

Williams: Yeah. Yeah. Big concerts, you know, John Lennon and Yoko Ono and friends.

Holdship: Yeah at Chrysler. That’s so wild.

Williams: And so this is an original Gary Grimshaw.

Holdship: Oh yeah.

Williams: So the colors and yeah. Being an original poster, so you can see it’s also encapsulated and stored in the vault because that’s fairly valuable. That’s one of the more collectible. But yeah a lot of these are concerts at the Grande Ballroom. All the places in Michigan.

Holdship: Oh wow how fun!

Williams: Yeah it’s not all these 19th-century handwritten things.

Holdship: we’ve got some good 60s psychedelia.

Williams: Yeah exactly!

Holdship: Right on! Good to know John Sinclair is here in the vault and John Lennon with Ty Cobb and Gerald Ford and yeah Martin Luther King. Good company.

Williams: Kinda keep on trucking alongside all these other things.

Holdship: Exactly.

While I hope you enjoyed that little excursion and I hope to have you back next month. ‘Till then, please visit michigantoday.umich.edu to find more “Listen in, Michigan” podcasts and to subscribe. You can find the podcast Simplecast, iTunes Stitcher, TuneIn and SoundCloud. Just search for “Listen in, Michigan”. Alright, that’s it for now, take it easy. And if you ever meet that blonde, beautiful and caressable film star, Ann Arbor, you know what to say. Go Blue.

The Vault

History nuts and people who like old stuff, quite literally, should enjoy this episode of “Listen in, Michigan,” as we enter the inner sanctum of the University’s Bentley Historical Library.

Brian Williams, assistant director and archivist at the Bentley, takes us behind the scenes and into the Vault, a restricted and locked area that holds some of U-M’s most precious artifacts. You can find everything from a Civil War soldier’s diary, complete with a bullet hole, to an original poster from the 1971 “Free John Sinclair” rally headlined by John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

As we explored the Bentley Vault (I’m sorry, I just have to capitalize Vault here), Brian showed me Fielding Yost’s 1901 contract to become the first football coach at U-M, the 1817 draft of the act to establish the Catholepistemiad or University of Michigania, and the original notecards Lyndon B. Johnson used to deliver his “Great Society” speech to U-M graduates in 1964, among other extremely cool things.

(Also, you may have noticed a new visual display for the podcast. We have moved to Simplecast, which offers a different player than the one we used at Soundcloud.)




  1. Paul Tremblay - 1979 BSE, 1991 MBA

    I really enjoyed listening to The Vault and interview with Brian Williams at Bentley. It is great to hear what is being preserved and is available to research.


  2. Suzanne Beauregard - 1976 LSA, BA

    Wow! This was the first podcast I listened too. I loved it. I could spend the rest of my lifetime sitting in a library absorbing the bits of history they have. To think a personal diary would be there. That soldier, just an every day guy, is now immortalized as a hero of Gettysburg.

    I am French Canadian and my ears peaked at the reference to fur trading information and old documents. I would love to see those.

    Well done! Go Blue!


  3. Mary Loescher - 1961

    I was wondering if my father’s grandfather’s civil war memories are at the Bentley? I know he donated them before his death in 1984. His name is Merwin Howe Waterman (also known as Jim Waterman…long story involving Waterman Gym.)


    • Deborah Holdship

      Yes, Mary! Archivist Brian Williams reports: Your inquiry about a Civil War collection donated to the Bentley Historical Library was forwarded to my attention by the editor of Michigan Today. The Bentley Library holds the George N. Howe collection, consisting of diaries and correspondence relating to Howe’s service with the 18th Michigan Infantry during the Civil War. According to our records, the Howe material was donated to the Bentley Library in May 1976 by your father, Merwin Howe Waterman. Here’s a link to the description of the George N. Howe papers.


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