Capturing the Stories of Our Alumni: Question and Answer with University Archivist, Rob Sieczkiewicz
By: Jenny James Lee
Capturing and preserving its own history is essential to any organization's survival; at Drexel such is the responsibility of Rob Sieczkiewicz, our University Archivist. His team of three staff collects, catalogs and makes available the original materials that tell Drexel’s story – and those collections are growing.
This past year the University Archives took on a new challenge: capturing a different facet of Drexel’s history by recording oral histories of the alumni who witnessed it firsthand. Throughout the first half of 2013, Rob and archives technician, Anita Lai, met with ten alumni to learn more about Drexel’s fraternities and sororities, through interviews with the men and women who shaped that history. I sat down with Rob in late July to uncover what contributions the recordings made to the Archives collections.
Question: What were some of the most interesting things you learned while talking to alumni and recording their oral histories?
One thing that I had not appreciated before recording these histories was how small and intimate Drexel Tech was in the 1950’s and 1960’s. With an enrollment of only 6,000 students in the day program, Drexel was a community of students who had a shared experience of demanding classes, a social life in the Great Court and fraternity houses and sports teams that united them in a common purpose.
Faced with a rigorous curriculum, fraternity and sorority members worked to help each other succeed. Steve Plotkin '63 recalled that many of his brothers in Sigma Alpha Mu struggled with their engineering and math classes, studying for hours each night. The backgrounds of the students reflected Drexel's long tradition of providing education for the working classes. "Nobody had any money," Regis Kubit '55 remembered. "There was competition but we all stuck together." When Steve Plotkin was asked why he chose to come to Drexel his first response was: "Money…. I came from a modest background; living in a tenement in the Bronx ... Drexel seemed to attract the working class … the upper class migrated across the street to Penn."
Most of the alumni and alumnae I interviewed were first generation college students.
The campus was different as well. Barbara ("Pixie") Alexander '58 noted that she attended Drexel before the Creese Student Center was built, and the Great Court was the center of campus activity. When I asked Regis Kubit '55, "Did you have a space on campus for events?" he laughed and said, "Cavanaugh's… and the Great Court." At the time, Cavanaugh's restaurant was on Market Street, where the Bossone Center is today.
While busy with classes and studying, all these alumni were engaged in other activities. "At Theta Chi you had to be involved in an activity," Kubit recalled. "You had to play a sport or do something … One of the upperclassmen grabbed [a shy] brother and said, 'You're gonna be a photographer' for the Triangle." The shy Theta Chi brother did exactly that and then became an editor of the student paper. Many of the fraternities and sororities started as local organizations, unique to Drexel. Most later merged with national organizations.
Question: What is something new you learned while recording someone's history?
I was surprised at how much the co-op employers have changed and how much responsibilities some of the students took on during their co-ops. Some alumni mentioned doing co-ops at employers that no longer exist. For example: Regis Kubit talked about working on Atlantic's petroleum pipeline while Steve Plotkin spoke about flying a plane at low altitude over Manhattan. Steve told me, " I was a 20 year old carrying a federal badge inspecting ship’s radio stations for the FCC.”
Question: What value do the oral histories add to the University Archives?
The stories of these alumni capture a side of Drexel’s history that is not otherwise documented in the Archives. We know the results of sporting events and the news stories recorded in the Triangle, but without these recordings we don't know the stories behind the official stories. I look forward to expanding our oral history collection in the coming years.
About Drexel University Archives
Drexel University Archives acquires materials of enduring value, for preservation and access, to assist in the learning and research of the faculty, students and interested members of the public. The Archives serves the university community by collecting, preserving and making available institutional records. The primary purpose of the Archives is to select and preserve records that document the founding, growth and function of the University. The Archives also serves as an educational resource encouraging the use of the records for researchers and the general public. Visit Drexel University Archives online at archives.library.drexel.edu.