Department of History faculty present research in Park Library as part of Central Michigan University's 125th anniversary
The Clarke Historical Library celebrated Central Michigan University’s 125th anniversary with an oral history presentation starring the voices of several alumni in the Park Library Auditorium on Wednesday, Sept. 13.
Jay Martin and Brittany Fremion, faculty in the Department of History, started their special project, “Boundary Voices: Snapshots of the Student Experience at Central Michigan University,” for the Museum of Cultural and Natural History in 2010.
Fremion said students were interesting subjects who gave intimate insights through controversial times.
“Students are people that are on the move, they’re individuals exploring all kinds of change and transitions yet their voices remain on the fringe,” she said. “Seemingly trapped between the boundaries of teenage youth and adulthood, novice and professional, child and parent.”
The project established an effective method of teaching oral history to students who would be instructed to interview predominantly alumni from several different decades, Martin said.
“We built it based upon what we individually as scholars could do and also what we could help our students do,” Martin said. “They would have something immediately in common with the people they would interview.”
Students spoke with alumni who had been enrolled at CMU during the 1950s up until encountering students from recent times like the 80s to meeting present day.
Fremion said Martin’s instruction had given the project and its various interviewers the means to draw out long and personal testimonies from subjects representing several decades.
The results of the collected interviews were “Thoughtful narratives” that play as critical reflections of the time and place being discussed, Fremion said during her speech.
The testimonies revealed journeys of discovering political voices and identity, overcoming failure and adversity and mending into a sense of community at the university, she said.
Martin interviewed current students at this year’s Mainstage event on Aug. 27 using his cellphone. In these several video recordings, freshmen tied their decision for enrollment to prior knowledge of successful programs and faculty.
Despite the poor quality of these video recordings in account to the nature of the event, Martin said he spotted a nearly identical comparison to be made for throughout the generational differences.
The nature of this similarity came from associating the university as being a friendly environment to feel a part of a family and welcoming community, both him and Fremion said in review.
“The sense of community is significant and it definitely stands out,” Fremion said. “Although we are much bigger today than we were in 1892 as an institution, we are still a very friendly place and that’s something that is very appealing to objectives.”
The Importance of Mentorship
Martin said the relationship between CMU and its students throughout the generations emphasized not only a strong community but strength in mentorship.
“The importance of mentorship by various coaches, administrators, faculty and staff members for achieving student success is readily apparent,” he said.
Pontiac alumnus Walter Beach, who attended 1956-60, said former football coach Bill Kelly had an enormous impact on him. Beach acknowledged Kelly treated him no differently from his teammates even amidst him being one of CMU's first African-American athletes, Martin said.
Beach accepted a football scholarship from CMU after returning home from serving in the intelligence department of the U.S. Air Force. He accepted the offer in light of competition from the University of Michigan and Michigan State University due to his mother trusting Kelly’s judgement to see past Beach being African-American.
“He had to make his coaches aware that what they were thinking and what they were doing was not correct (nor) not acceptable to him,” Beach said in his interview. “My mother always said that he was an honorable man; he was a noble man.”
Beach was placed in lower-level practice groups by the coaching staff due to his skin color until Kelly eventually called staff out individually in a team announcement.
“He later went on to play in the NFL and was later separated from the Cleveland Browns because of his activities (of) participating in civil rights oriented activities,” Martin said, explaining that Beach was one of the first professional ball players to sue a team for discrimination. The success of his case gave him the means to moving forward to attending Harvard Law School in Massachusetts.
CMU also became a place where a farmer’s son in Mount Pleasant could rise up to becoming one of the prodigies of Charles Anspach in 1959-66.
John Harkins was refused from attending CMU after failing an anatomy class in high school. His father spoke directly to Anspach who decided to take Harkins under his guidance despite disapproval from admissions committee.
“He rubbed me in their noses that occasionally it was wise to take something else into consideration (and that was) the heart of gold,” Harkins said. “I am blessed to become what is called one of Charlie Anspach’s boys.”
Former CMU President William Boyd also served as a role model and fellow activist to hundreds of students under conflicts of the Vietnam War from 1955-75, Fremion said.
Fremion said something attained through the interviews was clarifying that students are not immune from national, international and current events.
“Vietnam definitely had a place on campus and certainly in the fall of 1969,” Fremion said. The campus became a venue for candlelight marches, speakers and hall-take overs in acts of protest that Boyd took part in.
Alpena alumna Nancy Hornak and 1965 graduate James Hornak said a dark cloud hovered over students’ heads during the Vietnam War.
Nancy Hornak said she and her peers mourned and feared the deaths of their old high school and hometown colleagues and that even their classmates would eventually get drafted.
Bringing Light to the Forgotten
Fremion said that one of the project's goals was to bring light to memories and traditions that would otherwise be overlooked or understated.
These included practices such as tray-ing on campus, where students would go sledding on cafeteria trays and the toilet paper toss that occurred during basketball games in the 1980s. Other traditions were the passing of female students up the bleachers at football games in applause to the first home touchdown.
“Something we hope that you all will take away from this conversation (is) that we really hope to aim and highlight voices that had been previously admitted from what is considered the traditional historical record,” Fremion said, explaining the project’s mission to share stories that would in other cases be excluded from university papers.
The tradition of streaking in 1973-74 is another festivity that Fremion made a point of bringing light to.
“(It) became a fad temporarily, gratefully, at CMU,” she said.
Students celebrated the first snowfall by standing naked outside Boyd's home and running throughout residential hallways in the nude.
Nancy Hornak described a nightly tradition referred to as the lineup that took place in her time at CMU from 1961-65.
Female residencies had a 9 p.m. curfew Monday through Thursday and a weekend curfew at 11 p.m. A sign-in-log kept residential staff aware of the girls roundabouts in the evening.
“The couples would come back together and form what we called the lineup,” Hornak said.
In a line fashion couples would hug and kiss farewell until staff flashed a light at them through the main entrance ten minutes prior to curfew.
“In addition to learning about some silly traditions, we learned some really great and wonderful things about students,” Fremion said. “We learned of their resilience; that they are strong in the face of challenge and adversity, they are courageous and that they are bold and daring.”