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Alumni Help WPI Build Its History

By Amy L. Marr '96

A sampling of Gordon Library's extensive collection of artifacts from WPI history, many donated by alumni. Recent contributors include Al Papianou '57 (class memorabilia and antique WPI postcards) and the families of Ed Bayon '31 (photo album and Skull memorabillia) and Joseph Kapinos '33 (classic WPI ruler and T-square, old yearbooks and textbooks).

It's been said that one man's trash is another man's treasure. That's a saying that Rodney Obien can relate to. As WPI's archivist and special collections librarian, Obien spends much of his time collecting treasures from WPI's history. Many of those treasures once resided--one step from the trash--in the attics, garages and closets of WPI alumni.

Each year, Obien says, through the thoughtfulness and generosity of living alumni and the families of deceased alumni, WPI's story grows richer and more complete. In addition to receiving donations in the archives' home in Gordon Library, he says he has visited homes of alumni and their families to accept gifts of artifacts that once held a special place in the memories of graduates.

Items that make their way to the WPI Archives are not simply relegated to boxes in some dusty corner. As Obien puts it, the "archives is a place for people to make a tangible connection with WPI's rich past."

Each year, hundreds of alumni, students and other visitors make that connection, some to do serious research, others just to browse. The archives is also popular with genealogists and others seeking family roots. "Sometimes a yearbook photo is all that exists as a visual record of someone during early adulthood," Obien says. "Helping people find information about their families always makes me feel quite satisfied about what I do."

In addition to cataloging his newfound treasures, Obien spends a considerable amount of time deve- loping new and creative ways to make them accessible. Recent ideas have included displays around the library and setting aside a small room to showcase items that open a window into student life through the years, including yearbooks, issues of the student newspaper, beanies, mugs, signs and T-shirts.

When students visit the archives, Obien likes to show them the library's extensive collection of course catalogs on display, dating back to WPI's days as the Worcester Free Institute. Many of these were donated to the archives by alumni who kept them as treasured mementos of their student days.

"Today's students seem awestruck by the fact that these still exist and that they can hold them in their hands," Obien says. "I tell them to remember that when they're inventing new things; will those new technologies stand the test of time, as these books have?"

Among the WPI artifacts that Obien most enjoys holding in his hands are the Theo Brown diaries. "Brown, a member of the Class of 1901, eventually became the chief engineer for John Deere," he says. "The diaries, which date from 1893 to 1971, contain a fascinating collection of writings, news clippings and drawings that document the life of one of WPI's most distinguished graduates."

Theo Brown's diaries were donated to WPI by his daughter. Were it not for gifts like hers, Obien says, the archives would have far fewer stories to tell about WPI, its history and its people. "The generous gifts of alumni and their families have added immeasurably to our collections," he says. "I'd ask readers to keep that in mind the next time they're cleaning the cobwebs out of their attics. You never know what kinds of WPI treasures might be lurking there."

Marr, manager of Web development at WPI, earned a bachelor's degree in technical communications and a master's in marketing at the university.

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