New archivist uncovers University’s lost history

July 29, 2015
Posted by
Alyssa Onisick
GMercyU archivist David McAllister

The daunting task of organizing 160 boxes worth of faculty files dating back to 1948 didn’t scare University archivist David McAllister. Instead, it invigorated him.

“There’s more in there than just employment contracts,” McAllister said of the more than 2,200 folders. 

Included in the files of past faculty members, he found notes from students, recommendations from deans and research. He spent months alphabetizing and organizing the files, and then created a record of the information. He found the average tenure for faculty – including adjuncts—is about three years. The average tenure for a Sister of Mercy is about 10.

But perhaps the best thing he has come across since his quest to organize the university’s archives was a letter addressed to the University’s first president, Mother Mary Bernard Graham, RSM, from President John F. Kennedy. His secretary used an autopen signature to sign the letter, which encouraged Catholic colleges and universities to support his civil rights bill.

“It was wonderful, and where did I find it? In a miscellaneous box with the label ‘Misc. W.’ The ‘W’ was for ‘White House,’” McAllister said. “It was really fun to find that.”

The system for archiving university information has changed a lot since the 1980s, when Sister Henrietta Connelly first started, McAllister said. Changes in available technology make searching the archives easier, but all of the information has to be entered into the system manually.

“The volume of the records was greater than one individual could handle,” McAllister said. “I think we were in the same situation a lot of smaller institutions were in, where the volume of records was overwhelming.”

While there are many boxes that contain information, photos and relics from the 1950s, the majority of documents range from the 1980s to present. Before the 1980s, saving these items wasn’t done as often. 

McAllister found hundreds of photos dating back to the 1950s. He and a student worker have begun the process of scanning the photos to post in online galleries. He hopes to recruit some alumni to help him identify the people and events depicted. Some photographs were marked with students’ names, but others have just a year or location.

Another project McAllister is working on is an oral history of the University and some of the memorable faculty members. He recently spoke with Sister Mary Coleman, who taught at the University starting in the 1950s and became academic dean in the 1970s. 

“She doesn’t remember everything, but just to look at her eyes, it’s there,” McAllister said. 

He also spoke with Sister Anne Donofry, who shared her own memories of Sister Fenton Joseph, who established the associate degree nursing program at the University in 1959. She passed away in 2003. Sister Anne is in her 90s now, and was a student of Sister Fenton Joseph.

“They’re proud of what they accomplished and it really shines through, and it makes me proud to be working on it,” McAllister said. 

The oral histories are available on the GMercyU Archives page.