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Barry Schrader


I currently write a column each Tuesday for the DeKalb Daily Chronicle. The column will also appear on this website each week and be added to the archives.

The Articles started December 2007.


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Handwritten letters vital to history

By Barry Schrader.................................October 26, 2010

The Regional History Center and Northern Illinois University Archives are featuring an exhibit this month on the first floor of the Founders Memorial Library that interested me. Titled “Somethin’ to Write Home About …” it includes letters home from soldiers, items about college life, university business, something about the Chicago World’s Fair, personal family correspondence, and much more.
I happened to be viewing the four display cases at the same time one of my former NIU instructors, Dr. Jack Bennett, was there. My first contact with him was in 1959-60 when I took general biology, not one of my strong subject areas.
I had other dealings with him during my college years as he became adviser to the new Young Republicans Club, and later I sought his advice on the creation of a new student magazine called “The Quarterback – A Journal of Fact, Opinion & Literature,” which I edited the first year or so of its existence. Being an “underground” student magazine, we sought faculty opinion pieces and advice on how to navigate around university policies and restrictions on “freedom of the press.”
Bennett was at the library perusing his own letters donated a few years ago to the Archives when he retired. In addition to his files on the early years of the American Federation of Teachers, which he helped establish at NIU, he had turned over a box of old

Jack Bennett looks at his old correspondence in display case at NIU library. (NIU Archives Photo)


letters from his late mother, which were mainly written by him when he was in the Army at the end of World War II.
Bennett got drafted late in the war, so he never saw duty overseas. But one letter was particularly revealing. In it he told his mother he had been stationed in Denver at a military hospital and then was transferred to another military installation in Oklahoma. It was during a train ride between the two posts that he experienced “Jim Crow” laws for the first time.
He related how he boarded a civilian passenger train for the trip, sitting next to an African-American sergeant. When they changed trains farther south, he innocently got on the same car with that sergeant and did not notice only “black” soldiers were in that car. The conductor came aboard and told Bennett to move to another car where the “white” soldiers were seated.
Being a small-town boy from Wisconsin, he hadn’t been exposed to segregation, so he refused. He was then physically removed from the car along with his duffel bag and placed in the all-whites car. This left an indelible impression on him, which was brought back to light when he saw his correspondence on display this month.
These are the kind of gems that the Archives people – Cindy Ditzler, Joan Metzger, and Katharine White – love to find and share with others. You can see several examples in the current display that ends Sunday. Or go online to the Regional History Center and NIU Archives and see the thousands of other collections they have in storage, just waiting for someone to come and look them over.
I worry that today’s correspondence will be lost to our children and grandchildren because I estimate about 80 percent of all communication over any distance is now done online and not preserved for future generations. Think now, how many of your e-mails or tweets to family members and close friends do you save in hard copy form and file away. When was the last time you wrote a letter by hand and mailed it to a loved one or friend in another part of the country? Do you get my point?

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Barry Schrader
PO Box 851
DeKalb, Ill 60115