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Patrick Quinn

(Photo by Kathy Richland)

It's one of University archivist Patrick M. Quinn's favorite Northwestern stories: Just before the 1869 inauguration of Erastus O. Haven, the president-to-be essentially blackmailed the members of the Board of Trustees into making the University coeducational.

"He said, 'I'd be delighted to serve as your president; however, there is one condition. I will not serve unless you agree to admit women,'" Quinn relates. "This is Inauguration Day, on the steps of University Hall. So they had no choice but to agree."

An archivist for 33 years and a marvelous raconteur, Quinn knows all the great stories about Northwestern. The tales come as fast as ticker tape. Many of the stories have an international backdrop; among their cast members are a drafter of postwar Japan's constitution, Alaskan explorers and even the intrepid adventurer who may have been the "real" Indiana Jones.

In his own right, Quinn is recognized by many on campus as a living, breathing institution. This year -- just about the time the University's 150th anniversary celebration will begin in earnest (with his active participation) -- he will log a personal milestone, his 25th year as the Northwestern archivist and resident expert on the place.

"He probably knows as much about the University's history as anyone else alive," says John Margolis, associate provost of the Judd A. and Marjorie Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and a colleague for a quarter of a century. "Virtually everything I send [to archives] is restricted. Well, most of the interesting stuff I send is restricted. The success of the archives depends in considerable part on [the administration's] trust in him."

Quinn concurs. "I've seen documentation that very few people have seen," he says. "Usually a president only sees the records of his period."

Ensuring the security of confidential records is only part of the job. Quinn spends most of his days in the volume-lined reading room in the basement of Deering Library. At his desk, he is surrounded by bumper stickers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he studied English and later studied history. A chunk of the Rock, obtained in the 1980s when parts broke off during a move, sits atop a file cabinet. Ground level is just above Quinn's head when he stands, and a window looks out toward Deering Meadow. Hidden away in the small room, this towering man with his graying beard gives the impression of a bear, but not one in hibernation. Hibernation assumes a certain docility, a trait in which Quinn is famously and endearingly lacking.

"He's a blustery kind of guy," says Kevin Leonard, an archival associate whom Quinn hired 23 years ago when Leonard was a junior at Northwestern. "He's a character, very garrulous." The two met when Leonard stopped by the archives for a class assignment and found himself answering, at Quinn's request, a research inquiry that came in. Later that year, when Quinn discovered that Leonard had taken a job elsewhere in the library, he "had me transferred from stack control before I ever shelved a book," says Leonard. "He was offended. If I was going to get a job in the library, why didn't I work in archives?"

Carl Smith, professor of English and American studies, says that Quinn "is the spirit of the collection. ... It's not just information, it's human experience. You catch his enthusiasm when you talk to him. It's not a vocation for him, it's an avocation. It's not a job, it's a whole world."

Actually, the start of Quinn's tenure at Northwestern was not a romantic self-realization among boxes of historical records. As Leonard says about archival administration, "Most people my age or older fell into this line of work by chance -- who ever heard of an archivist?"

When Quinn, a Wisconsin native, was an undergraduate at Madison, he encountered some history on a personal level: The campus was beginning to be rocked by the social and political issues of the 1960s. In March of 1965, he joined the historic and brave band that marched for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.

Following the rally on the steps of the Alabama Capitol, about 30 black kids from Selma found themselves inadvertently left behind as darkness descended. "I went to a phone booth and called up the Montgomery bus company," Quinn remembers. "I told them, 'This is Patrick Quinn. Would you please get some buses down to the Capitol as soon as possible? We have to transport some people over to Selma.' I was absolutely astonished when these three school buses came down the street."

Quinn's activism fed his desire to travel; he lived in New York City for a while before returning to Madison, where he served as an archivist at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin and later as the assistant university archivist at the University of Wisconsin. In 1974, he arrived at Northwestern, where his love of history quickly grew into an appreciation for the University's roots. Margolis recalls watching Quinn lecture to incoming students and their parents on the history of the school and notes, "It's clear that though he wasn't born purple, he has purple in his blood now."

In fact, that official Northwestern color was chosen by default, Quinn says. "[The faculty committee] looked around and saw what other universities had, and purple was available," he says.

It's all in the archives, he explains. Few know, for example, that in addition to its role as a pioneer in coeducation, Northwestern had a medical school for women from 1892 to 1902, which was shut down when it started losing money. Henry Wade Rogers, a noted anti-imperialist who opposed the Spanish-American War, was the University president who championed the women's school. He was forced out of office in 1900, leaving, Quinn says, before his progressive work was completed.

Besides ranking as one of the many "enlightened individuals" in University history, Rogers was what Quinn calls "the father of the modern Northwestern University," bringing together an originally loose federation of schools.

Quinn also keeps the papers of former political science professor and adventurer William McGovern, the purported inspiration for movie hero Indiana Jones. A grainy self-made film from the 1920s, in the archives, shows McGovern crossing into Tibet disguised as a Sherpa guide, the first Westerner to reach that country. "So he claims," says Quinn. "How do you prove you're the first outsider in there? It's like Columbus. Columbus wasn't the first white person in the Western Hemisphere, but he got the publicity."

The archives also reveal that Nobel Prize winner Saul Bellow (WCAS37, H62) published his first short story in the Daily Northwestern in 1936. In the early 1990s, a scholar a week would fly from Japan to pore over the files of former political science professor Kenneth Colgrave, who played the key role in drafting Japan's current constitution. The papers of Melville Herskovits, one of the founders of African studies, are among those heavily used, as are those of Winifred Ward, founder of the field of creative dramatics.

Quinn relates the story of two of the most adventurous faculty members at Northwestern, Robert Kennicot and Henry Bannister. "We have the diaries of these two men who explored Alaska and made the recommendation to William Seward, the secretary of state, that the United States purchase Alaska from Russia," he says. "[Kennicot and Bannister] were both associated with Northwestern's Museum of Natural History, which at one time rivaled the Smithsonian. Kennicot actually died up there on the expedition, but Bannister survived and came back. His reports were used to sway Congress to purchase Alaska in 1867. We have the journals that they kept."

Quinn also tells how the campus has changed since the earliest days. Both Dearborn Observatory and the original Patten Gymnasium once stood on the current location of the Technological Institute. The observatory was moved by teams of horses, and the gym was demolished in 1940. Patten had been the finest indoor athletic college facility in the country and host to the first-ever NCAA basketball championship in 1939. Quinn has been around long enough to note how the human side of Northwestern has changed for the better as well, becoming more racially and ethnically diverse.

In the coming years, Quinn, who has extensive knowledge of places on several continents, hopes to travel even more. Perhaps it's his own personal homage to the engaging, globe-trotting spirits who inhabit Northwestern's archives. He explains his desire to explore as a love of new places and people -- "probably the same reason I'm an archivist."

Jenny Pritchett (J98) is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.