History Becomes Personal

People create objects: clothing, art, buildings, tools, utensils, written records and more. These things constitute material culture. How do the things we create reflect our culture? Our values and beliefs? How has the Barbie doll evolved over decades? What is our relationship with “things”? Why do we keep what we do and discard other things? Do they represent fond memories or part of our personal history? Do they represent some aspect of who we are?

Dr. Andrea Gazzaniga’s freshman Honors class is studying material culture. They recently read The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien which talks about what young men carried with them when they fought in Vietnam. The Special Collections and University Archives manuscript collection MS-54 Al Murphy Vietnam Military Service Papers (https://inside.nku.edu/steelyarchives/specialcollections/alphabeticallist/murphy-vietnam-military.html) is about one local veteran’s experience in Vietnam in 1971-1972. The class visited the archives and had the opportunity to meet Mr. Murphy and see objects from his collection. Having read the text himself, he discussed objects from his collection, explaining what they were and how he used them in Vietnam. His boots, P-38 can opener, dog tags, and other objects were passed around for students to see firsthand. Murphy shared a selection of photographs which illustrated statements from the text as well as personal photographs that hang in his house of the men he fought with in his unit.

The experience of seeing objects mentioned in the text and hearing a former soldier speak to them about his experience made both the objects in his collection and the text more real and personal for the students. Our thanks to Mr. Murphy for donating his collection, and for giving his time to speak with the students. What follows is the reflections of several students on their experience meeting Mr. Murphy.

January 28th, 2020:                  By Austin Alwell

            Today I had the privilege of hearing and speaking with a veteran of the Vietnam War, Al. It was a truly eye-opening experience that really made me feel grateful for the situation I am in. To preface our discussion, we were asked to read an excerpt from the book The Things They Carried. This piece tells the story of a small troop of men and intensely describes the things they are carrying along with them on their journey. One really cool part about meeting with Al was that I could see what some of the objects mentioned in the book looked like. Many of his photos had men with the weapons described, as well as the clothing. This part was one of the most powerful and impactful moments of the discussion. Seeing the photos makes the reading experience much more personal and allows for a much more connected experience. I felt as if I was walking along with Al as he told his story and as he mentioned some of the men in his pictures. It made me appreciate the freedom I have.  I was also intrigued by the significance of some of the small objects. Things like a can opener, which Al found to be one of the most important, would not hold gravity without further explanation from the object keeper.

Overall, I found this experience very fruitful. Being able to hear Al’s story and have a personal narrative about such an emotional event was really amazing. I was also inspired by Al’s motives to give away his items. He wants to be able to continue the legacy of not only himself, but more importantly all of the men who served with him. He feels as if he carries their stories along with his. This is something I find to be powerful. It shows his selflessness to give away objects with such an emotional attachment, all to better the future generations and community members. In addition, I want to thank the University Archives for their role in preserving these objects and many more. Without their help we would not be able to have such impactful experiences. They are playing an active role in ensuring the authenticity of our past.

The Secret Room                    by Jade Raleigh

            Northern Kentucky University’s Special Collections and University Archives holds the memorabilia from various aspects of history. Located on the first floor of Steely Library, the room is hidden away in plain sight. Something a person would pass by every day without realizing what lays behind it is a look into the past–a time machine available to all.

There are, however, a few things to note before entering this time machine. The first being how seriously Lois Hamill, the University Archivist, takes her job. This position that Hamill holds is an earnest one– she is responsible for what is in the archives. The preservation of the objects located within is of extreme importance. Clean, freshly washed hands may seem like an odd request, but it is a must. Humans use their hands every day. They use them to use the restroom, to eat, to open doors, to write, and many other things. All this activity can leave germs, grease, ink, paint, and dirt on the hands– so washing them before holding memorabilia of the past is necessary. The second thing to note is mainly for those who enter the archives looking for help with research. The Archives is a great place to go, and a helpful resource to rely on, however, if you enter looking for knowledge, make sure to bring a pencil. Pens and markers are permanent, they cannot be erased; ensuring the documents are not damaged irreversibly helps keep the Archives running smoothly. The third and final thing to note is no food and no drinks–for obvious reasons. The Archives holds objects you may have never thought about.

“These are things people lived with and used in their daily life– so we cannot describe them the way you would describe a book,” Hamill said when talking about the objects in the Archives. The walls are littered with pictures from the past, a look into NKU’s history. The room also has objects that people have donated that do not necessarily relate to the college itself.

Items preserved from the Vietnam War may be something you would think the Archives would not have, but thanks to Al Murphy, a Vietnam veteran, that is not the case.

Ten cents US Military paper money used in Vietnam during war.

Money from the military Murphy sent home to his parents.

Murphy painted a vivid image of what it was like being a soldier during one of the United States’ most controversial wars.

“Most of us didn’t want to be there,” Murphy said. A statement that was later backed up with a photo he had kept over the years.

Al Murphy, two US soldiers in vietnam

Murphy and Friend. Murphy has FTA written on his chest in shaving cream (F*ck the Army).

Murphy did not only have photographs of his time spent in Vietnam, but he also had various objects. A pair of beat-up old military boots were the first thing many students noticed. Sitting in what appeared to be a make-shift box, meant to keep the boots in good condition, Murphy passed them around for everyone to see.

“It was unique for me. It was a symbol of where I was and what I did,” Murphy said about the boots.

The boots were made of canvas material–material known for its durability and resilience. They were not the only pair of shoes Murphy donated. The second pair of shoes showed a change in history that many would not notice. The second pair had Velcro straps–something with which most of today’s generations are familiar. However, at the time, they were not as popular. Subtle changes are noted by seeing and hearing about people’s experiences. Velcro may seem as though it has been utilized since the beginning of time, but that is not the case. Murphy spoke about how nice it was to have a pair of slip-on shoes, something easy to put on and take off–something that provided him, and many other soldiers, a much-needed break from constant boot-wearing.

Murphy brought back numerous important items, but not any miscellaneous ones.

“Anything I wanted to keep, I had to carry,” Murphy said. Constant movement, except when it was dark, for “you didn’t move at night” according to Murphy, meant only bringing along what was needed.

Along with the boots, were dog tags, a bible, an M60 wrench, and more photographs. The dog tags identified each soldier, but according to Murphy, no one wore them around their necks. The noise from them, as well as how shiny there were, would have the United States Army at a disadvantage. Instead of wearing them around the neck, one dog tag would be located in a soldier’s boot and the other in their bag or a different holding place.

The bible was a pocket bible. Some soldiers would read them all day, some would just carry them according to Murphy’s recollections. The smell of the bible was noticeable–it smelt like any old book that lasted through the years, but this book had seen so much more.

The M60 wrench was one item that did not belong to Murphy, but rather his friend. It was seen as a good-luck charm. When his friend came back from the war, Murphy was going into the war. His friend gave him the wrench and said: “Murph, you have to bring this back.” The most important photographs were saved for last.

“These are the real memorabilia,” Murphy said, “photos of friends.”

When asked why Murphy wanted to donate the items he had, he said one factor was “appreciation to people we left there.”

The Archives is home to many amazing things and many amazing stories. It is worth a visit, and “a good place to start in many cases” according to Murphy.

by Benjamin Lindblad

My visit to Steely Library’s Special Collections with my class was extremely informative as well as interesting. Throughout the time I was there I was able to hear a first-hand account of a person who once had items, now located in the Special Collections, in his possession. Our guest informed us of his time during the Vietnam War and what the overall experience was like. By using each object to explain a particular story or memory, I was able to take a trip back in time and get a good image of what it was like back then dealing with the circumstances. One object featured in the Steely Library’s Special Collections was a pair of boots that he wore during his time in Vietnam. They showed wear on all areas and told of a time when they were being used to march through the deep forests in the warzone. He told us about moving along in the jungle and what objects were crucial to survival. One of the objects that played a key role in staying alive was a basic, hand-held can opener. Whilst in Vietnam, canned food was the only food available and was key to survival, but it couldn’t be without a basic can opener. Other objects that played a pivotal role were discussed and passed around as well. Many other objects not discussed in this piece were available to look at throughout the visit. Before going to the Special Collections I didn’t know what to expect, but after going I can say that it was more than I thought it was going to be. It is a great resource for academic research as well as personal interest. I would highly recommend anyone going to the collection to further his or her own knowledge on just about anything through the vast array of objects available there.

by Madison Johnson

The Special Collections meeting we had during class on Tuesday really touched me. I thought it was super cool to hear another viewpoint on the military from someone other than my family. Also, it was interesting to see it from a non-navy point of view. It was emotional looking at the pictures and hearing him tell his stories of his time while serving. It’s touching to see how much he cares that his friends are not forgotten. I really liked how he incorporated the one guy named Rho into the pictures, even though he barely knew him. I understand how he regrets how he may have treated him then; however, he did not know any other way. At least he can look back now and understand his mistakes and grow from them. It touched everyone in class including me and I feel like we can learn a lot from history and understand why certain things happened. I think there is a lot that could be prevented from happening if we studied why certain events came to pass and that it could help with future problems that could occur.

Alixandria Harris

NKU’s Special Collections was a great way to interact with a story in a unique way. The Special Collections allowed me to see the objects behind the story and even better, it allowed me to see the actual people behind the story. The Special Collections truly is special because you can see the dedication of the staff to preserve artifacts and to preserve the stories they hold. The importance of their relationships with the people that donate belongings is extremely evident.

Mr. Al Murphy donated his belongings from Vietnam but is so trusting that everything is extremely taken care of, these are the things he carried in the war but that he no longer has to and he knows the best place for them is in NKU’s Special Collections.

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Congratulations to Former Student Employee

photo of artists and sponsors of Best in Show winning decorated barrel

Best in Show Northern Kentucky Bourbon Barrel prize winning team and sponsors.


Congratulations to Emily Ulrich Bertsch! Emily and her team, which included Kaitlin Peed and Megan Doebrich also of NKU, participated in the recent northern Kentucky Bourbon Barrel project. Their barrel won Best in Show out of 107 barrels!

Emily, pictured fourth from left, worked as a student employee in our department for four years until she graduated in May 2018.

For those who would like to see their artwork in person, it will be on display at 642 Main St, Covington, KY for the next year.

Congratulations on your success Emily!

Back of prize winning bourbon barrel.

Back of Best in Show prize winning bourbon barrel.


Front of decorated Best in Show bourbon barrel

Front of Best in Show prize winning bourbon barrel.

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The Beginning of Something New

The University of Kentucky, a public university, was founded in 1865 in Lexington, KY. On July 1, 1948 the University of Kentucky (UK) established the Northern Extension Center to offer a limited two year college program in northern Kentucky. Administrative offices and classrooms were rented in the Covington First District School, an elementary school at Sixth and Scott Streets. Extension Center students used the chemistry labs at Ft. Thomas and the physics labs at Holmes high schools while the Covington YMCA was used for student recreational and athletic activities. The program was developed to meet the educational needs of returning military veterans and to provide professional and general education for part time undergraduates and graduates.

Dr. W.C. Wesley began the 1948-49 year as Director of the Northern Extension Center, but Thomas L. Hankins replaced him before the year ended. Hankins stayed on to become the first and longtime director of the successor institution Northern Community College. Being scattered across three different facilities wasn’t easy for administrators or students. UK began planning for its own permanent facility as early as 1958. A 40 acre site in Devou Park, Covington was selected. Mt. Allen Road was constructed to connect Dixie Highway to the new UK Northern Center campus. On November 19, 1961, the new building and Covington campus were dedicated. US President John F. Kennedy sent Hankins a telegram which was read at the dedication ceremony. Student enrollment in 1960-61 was 500-550 per semester. Instate tuition was $125, while non-residents paid $310. The Northern Center had 8 staff and 26 full or part time faculty. The library owned just over 3,300 books.






Covington campus ca 1976

Between 1957 and 1960, UK created four additional extension centers. In November 1961, a state study on education recommended development of a statewide community college system. In 1962 the state legislature approved creation of the community college system, the addition of new colleges and the conversion of existing university facilities at the five extension centers to the use of the community college system. UK was delegated the task of managing the entire system. By 1964 UK began converting the extension centers to community colleges. The Northern Center became the UK Northern Community College (UKNCC) using its new name for the first time in 1964-65. UKNCC’s first graduation ceremony was held in 1966; twenty-eight students received associate’s degrees or certificates.





Gov. Nunn signs Legislation establishing NKSC

In 1966 a Kentucky Council on Public Higher Education study recommended that one more state college be established in northern Kentucky because it lacked one despite being the state’s second largest metropolitan region. In 1967 Louie B. Nunn was elected Governor. In return for support in his election he supported the establishment of Northern Kentucky State College (NKSC), signing the establishing legislation on March 14, 1968. In order for the UKNCC assets to be transferred to the new NKSC, the University of Kentucky, the Kentucky Council on Public Higher Education (now the Council on Postsecondary Education) and the state legislature all had to approve. This was completed by July 31, 1969.

Although the Covington campus was deeded to NKSC on June 20, 1969, UK continued to be responsible for conducting classes until NKSC took that over in July 1970. President Steely wasn’t hired as President until December 1969. While the new college may have had a campus and facilities, it had no employees to run it. The first NKSC classes were offered at the Covington campus during the summer session which actually began in June 1970. Classes continued in Covington while a larger, more permanent site for the fledgling state college was created elsewhere. Classes began at the new Highland Heights campus for the fall 1972 semester.

Meanwhile, the Chase College of Law, formerly a Cincinnati evening law college housed at the YMCA, merged with NKSC effective June 1972. Chase moved into the Covington campus in the fall of 1972 after NKSC moved into the new Highland Heights campus. In 1974 the main Covington building was named Hankins Hall in honor of Hankins’ long service as director there. Chase moved to the Highland Heights campus in the spring of 1982 once the present campus had sufficiently expanded for the occupants of Nunn Hall to be able to move into other buildings.




Hankins Hall, 1990

After the departure of Chase, NKU continued to use the Covington campus for classes and offices until it closed in December 2008. Hankins Hall was demolished in February 2011. The library and other non-permanent structures had already been removed. The 38+ acre site has been prepared and is now available for purchase.

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Reading, Writing and Paper Making

I would like to give a shout out to James Harrigan, Grace Beck and their English 151 Honors professor Dr. Tamara O’Callaghan. James and Grace gave a presentation to the Board of Regents last Wednesday about research they did in the fall of 2016 which they developed into poster presentations for the just concluded Student Celebration of Creativity. It was my honor as University Archivist to introduce James and Grace because they had used some of our digital archival collections to start their research.

James gave a fascinating presentation about the Spencerian method of penmanship for cursive writing which requires a specific posture, method of holding the pen and shaping letters. The lack of present day instruction in cursive handwriting caused concern for the potential future inability to read cursive handwriting and prospective loss of history without that skill. The process of handwriting words versus texting them with our thumbs helps reinforce information in our long term memory. Writing information out by hand used to be a beneficial study technique at exam time.


Sarah E. Reasoner, daughter, to Cyrus Reasoner – April 28, 1865

Grace’s curiosity about a paper watermark led to research on how paper was made in the 19th century. Initially discarded cloth rags were recycled as an ingredient in paper. The Industrial Revolution led to steam powered machines which sped up the paper production process, increasing the demand for rags. As their supply dwindled, technology searched for alternative sources, eventually settling on wood pulp from trees. The process used to remove lignin from the wood pulp causes the resulting paper to be very acidic. Acidic paper is still a problem today. If you have ever seen a news clipping left in a book long enough to make a stain on the adjacent pages that is the acid leaching from the newsprint into whatever paper is nearby. Archives purchase boxes that are lignin free and acid free to better preserve the materials stored within.

By the way, James and Grace were in their first semester of college when they conducted their research using archival documents. This is rather unusual and due to Dr. O’Callaghan who regularly uses archival materials in her classes. We, the archivists who work here, think the Special Collections and University Archives has cool stuff. We welcome undergraduate students, and all researchers who would like to use our materials to come talk with us about your research ideas.  We also think more faculty should bring their classes to visit because we think you don’t know what we have that would relate to your classes. We’re not just your ordinary history archives. http://steelyarchives.nku.edu/specialcollections/topicallist.html

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Democracy Square LIVE! in the Archives

Join Special Collections and University Archives on Thursday, March 31 from 12:30-1:30pm in Steely Library Room 102 for Democracy Square LIVE!, co-hosted with The Scripps Howard Center for Civic Engagement. The discussion will examine difficult historical knowledge brought to light in “When Covington, Kentucky Executed an Innocent Man: the Legal Lynching of John Montjoy,” a new exhibit in the Archives Research Room. Katie Bramell,  Public History graduate student and exhibit curator, will talk about her exhibit research and lead a discussion on the complex topics she unearthed during the process.

The exhibit focuses on the case of John Montjoy, an African American accused of the rape of a white woman in Covington, Kentucky in 1935. In this real life version of To Kill A Mockingbird, John Montjoy was convicted by an all-white jury, forced to confess under physical harm, subjected to racial prejudices during his criminal trial and was executed two years later by way of hanging in the courtyard of Covington’s City Hall. The exhibit, using primary sources from Steely Library’s Eva G. Farris Special Collections along with other archival resources, highlights the racial inequalities and injustices Montjoy was subjected to as well as the impact this unfair execution had on the African American community of Covington. The exhibit seeks to engage visitors in dialogue about the larger social effects this case and others like it have on the way we think about history and how we understand inequalities in the justice system in communities across America.

The exhibit will be on display in the Archives Research Room in Steely Library Room 106, beginning March 30. Open public visiting hours are 1-4pm, Monday-Friday.

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New Twists, Old Artifacts

One of the most rewarding aspects of working in Special Collections and University Archives is seeing how users, near and far, connect with the materials that we carefully preserve. They never cease to amaze us with their creativity and scholarship!

Last spring a production company contacted us after discovering an artifact mentioned in one of our online finding aids. The object, a needle threader from the Committee of 500 Records, ties into George Ratterman’s campaign for sheriff of Campbell County, Kentucky in 1961. The production company wanted to feature it in an episode for Mysteries at the Museum, a show on the Travel Channel.

The Claude W. Johnson, Jr. Committee of 500 Records contain organizational records and campaign ephemera from the Committee of 500, a citizen-led group that operated in Campbell County, Kentucky during the 1960s. The group’s goal was to rid the county of organized crime, illegal gambling, and prostitution. The Committee of 500 believed that electing new officials was one of the most effective ways to beat corruption and crime. They supported and helped finance the campaign of George Ratterman, a former NFL quarterback and Fort Thomas, Kentucky resident, for Campbell County Sheriff in 1961. On May 9, 1961, after dinner and drinks with Tito Carinci, a Newport club manager rumored to have mob connections, Ratterman was found in Newport’s Glenn Hotel with a stripper who went by the stage name of April Flowers and arrested by police. After his arrest, Ratterman claimed he was drugged and framed by Carinci. A court found Ratterman not guilty and then conspiracy charges were brought against Carinci and his associates. While those charges were eventually dismissed, the incident had already galvanized support behind Ratterman. He went on to win the sheriff’s office in the November election.

E-Z threader_watermark_72

Ephemera from the Claude W. Johnson, Jr. Committee of 500 Records, Eva G. Farris Special Collections, W. Frank Steely Library

The Ratterman campaign distributed the needle threader as a campaign give-away. It’s attached to a card with the slogan “Let’s Give Vice the Needle/ Vote for George W. Ratterman for Sheriff.” The production company tied the needle threader into their narrative about Ratterman being drugged by contrasting the delicacy of the threader with the evil of vice. In June 2015, the archives hosted the production company for a day to film the object and interviews with staff. The segment, “Dolley Madison, Christmas Truce, Exploding Whale” aired in December. It was a great experience for us to learn how a production company operates and to see how they use artifacts to support, or challenge, a narrative.

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Portrait of Colonel James Smith

The Fort Pitt Museum, located in Pittsburgh, PA, is currently borrowing the portrait of Colonel James Smith from the Warren J. Shonert Americana Collection in Special Collections for their outstanding exhibit, Captured by Indians: Warfare & Assimilation on the 18th Century Frontier. In a recent blog post, exhibit specialist Mike Burke analyzed the clothing worn by Smith in the portrait and connected elements like the fringe on the hunting shirt to clothing trends among backwoodsmen in the 1760s and 1770s. Read Burke’s blog post at http://www.heinzhistorycenter.org/blog/fort-pitt-museum/portrait-of-a-frontiersman-james-smith. We’re thrilled that Fort Pitt Museum shared their research with us on this unique piece in Special Collections.

The portrait is on loan to the museum through May 2016 for the exhibit.


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Northern Kentucky University: A Panoramic History

Along with the NKU community, University Archives is celebrating the launch of Northern Kentucky University: A Panoramic History, a new book featuring
panoramic photographs by professional photographer Tom Schiff
along with historical photos of the University. Tonight’s event will take place on the 3rd floor of W. Frank Steely Library from 6-8pm.

Working collaboratively with Marketing + Communications, archivists carefully selected historical images from University Archives’ RG University Photographs to include in the book. We hope you enjoy the selection!

The book, published by the University Press of Kentucky, will be available for purchase at the event and in the bookstore.

Book Cover

Cover of Northern Kentucky University: A Panoramic History

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Kentucky Oral History Day Success

We’ve been on a long blog break, but we’re excited to get started sharing our Special Collections and University Archives news again.

On October 21, Special Collections participated in the first Kentucky Oral History Day. Sponsored by the Kentucky Oral History Commission and the Kentucky Council on Archives, the purpose of the day was to improve access to oral history collections and to promote awareness of oral history collection needs and strategies for collection management.

Repositories across the Commonwealth have actively collected people’s stories to document the history of Kentucky and to provide a broader picture of the past than what is in written documents alone. Twelve institutions dedicated staff time on October 21 to specifically work on their oral history collections, including Northern Kentucky University, Berea College, University of Kentucky, Georgetown College, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, and others. The institutions held a lively Twitter conversation using the hashtag #OralHistoryDay to share their experiences and stories.

In Special Collections, we focused our efforts on adding information about our interviews to an online discovery tool called Pass the Word. The tool allows users to search for and find oral histories at over 600 different Kentucky repositories. You can find our interview information by going to http://passtheword.ky.gov, entering “Eva G. Farris Special Collections and Schlachter University Archives” in the search box at the top right of the screen, and selecting search. The tool displays the names of our collections and interviews. Each interview has a title, interviewee name, interviewer name, date of interview if available, and a description of the topics addressed in the interview. In order to listen to an interview or read a transcript, we ask that you visit the Archives Research Room during our public hours.

We Love Oral History sign

We love oral history so we added interview information to Pass the Word.

As a result of the Kentucky Oral History Day, we were able to learn about what other archives professionals are doing to care for their collections, share information about our collections, and promote the value of oral histories for understanding human experiences of the past.

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