A Voice from the Dead

As a graduate assistant in the Special Collections Research Center in Swem Library (Swem SCRC), I have had the opportunity to do a number of exciting things, from exhibit installation to assisting during special events.  One of the main things I have done this year, however, is processing collections.  Collections come in all shapes and sizes and contain material on a variety of subjects.  Many of the collections housed here have to do with the College of William & Mary and Williamsburg.  Often, alumni and administrators donate their papers to the College, allowing researchers a hands-on, first person look at the history of William & Mary.

This semester I had the opportunity to process the Davis Young Paschall Collection.  Davis Y. Paschall was the president of the College of William & Mary from 1960 to 1971, but the collection spans from 1931 to 2001.  This particular collection was organized prior to donation by Paschall himself and includes notes that he left for researchers to explain various instances in his life.  In 1941, Paschall explains he almost took a job as a principle in the state of Florida, but instead decided to remain in the state of Virginia after being offered a position with the State Department of Education.  Without Paschall’s note, the entire folder would seem out of place in the papers of a man who spent his life serving the cause of education in the State of Virginia.  Things like this were fascinating to find, since the conversational tone makes it seem almost like one is talking to Paschall himself.

The things Paschall chose to keep give valuable insight into the man.  There are documents relating to his career, correspondence with important players in Virginia education and politics, and various speeches he gave over the years.  These are to be expected since Paschall was a public man involved in a number of things – including serving as Superintendent of Public Instruction for the State of Virginia during Massive Resistance. There are also, however, a number of other things included in the collection.  Paschall saved hundreds (if not thousands) of newspaper clippings relating to the College of William & Mary as well as personal letters. These documents show the private man, one who was passionate about his alma mater and who had a number of close friendships over the years.  Some of the most touching items he kept include sympathy cards sent to him upon the death of his wife Agnes W. Paschall in 1995. With very public and influential figures, it is often easy to forget that at the end of the day, they are also very human figures.  With the death of his wife, I was struck by how very human Paschall was, for in that moment, he was not the former President of the College of William & Mary or the member of the Board of Visitors, but was simply a man who had lost his wife.  In fact, Paschall renamed his “Davis Y. Paschall Law Scholarship” to the “Davis Y. and Agnes W. Paschall Law Scholarship” to honor her memory.

Throughout the processing of the collection, I came to forget that Paschall had died. Through his papers, he came alive again and through his notes and folder titles, it was almost like hearing his commentary on the collection as I went along.  So often, we forget that papers, letters, and collections were written and collected by living individuals.  What they can teach us about history is invaluable, but from time to time it is nice to remember that they lived.  In processing this particular collection, the folder titles were kept as Davis Paschall himself titled them, giving the researcher insight into the mind of the man, almost like a voice from beyond the grave.

Lauren Wallace is a graduate student in the Department of History and a 2011-2012 Archives Apprentice in the Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library.