Late last week I got an email from Tommy Lavergne, the campus photographer. It was a bit of a shaggy dog story–I laughed out loud several times as I read it, wondering what the heck he was getting at. When I finally got to the point, though, I hustled right over to his office. I reproduce the email here almost (but not quite) in its entirety. (I took out a couple of things to protect the guilty. They were almost the funniest parts, but I promised.)
Ok–here’s the story.
Back in 1987, shortly after I got here, someone called me from the library. I have no idea who it was and they are probably dead by now. They asked me if I wanted some stuff from the old thresher darkroom. I was in desperate need of an enlarger and they had one that was in working order. I still have it. I think it was about a WW II model. They also had several boxes of crap. Developing tanks, thermometers, just typical photography junk that was outdated and obsolete. I sort of went through it and just figured I would keep it. The enlarger was the only thing I had my eye on.
The next year or so, we built my darkroom in the attic (5th floor) of Allen Center. I got it all set up and so on and eventually decided that I should toss most of the junk I got from the library. In the bottom of one of the boxes was a tiny box of glass plates. It said “open in darkroom only.” For at least 2 years I never opened it because I figured they were unused plates. The box was taped shut and I thought it was factory sealed. I knew something like that was best left untouched. I displayed the box at my home with my antique camera collection. Eventually, my wife redecorated and told me to minimize my junk so I put some of these things away. Well–my curiosity got the best of me and I noticed that the box actually had been opened, so I took a look.
I guess I should have taken it to Woodson right then, but I wanted a chance to try to print some of these first and surprise them with the finished product. The plates are in such bad shape that I really gave up. There was no way to clean these prints due to all the dust and decay. At that point, I just put them away with the intent of giving them over to Woodson, but for whatever reason, I never got around to it.
About two years ago, I remembered that I had printed some and decided to scan the prints and see if I could clean them up with Photoshop. I was going to clean them up and give the whole thing over to Woodson. I had one small problem. I could not find the plates. I search everywhere I could think of. My house, the darkroom, everywhere. Now I was worried that I would cause more problems that it was worth because I had no way to present the original source of the images.
Well guess what? I found the plates. They were in the bottom of one of my desk drawers. This is a HUGE relief to me. COME GET THEM!
There are about eight or nine pictures all together, all seem to have been taken in 1915 and 1916. I believe they record events from the 1915-16 school year, culminating in Rice’s first commencement, but it might be that they started at the 1916 commencement and went forward through the fall. I just can’t tell yet.
Tommy wasn’t sure how useful these images would be, but I find several of them extremely powerful, even haunting. Those two men working in the power plant in the picture above–I don’t know their names yet, but I will do everything I can to find them–were buried for nearly a hundred years and now suddenly they are back among us. Some of the other images connect up with things in student scrapbooks and have their own important stories to tell. I’ll go through them this week, one at a time. Bear in mind that I’ve never seen them before and I’m doing my research on the fly, making guesses and then refining them as I go. In other words, if I get something wrong, I might need a minute to figure it out.
I am extremely grateful, of course, to Tommy.
Bonus: Before she died earlier this year, Ray Watkin Strange (see this post) made arrangements for her large collection of family and personal papers and memorabilia to come to the Woodson Research Center. Lee Pecht, Fondren’s head of special collections, has been slowly bringing these materials in to the library. There really are a lot of them, and a lot more to come. This is what we have so far: