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The Triangle: Past Letters to Presidents displayed in Library

February 25, 2011

Correspondence between presidents, faculty and students change through years By: Samuel Davidson Posted: 2/25/11 A reception was held in Hagerty Library Feb. 22 for a new exhibit that will display archived letters to Drexel's presidents, in order to showcase the shared concerns and thoughts of over 100 years of presidents, students, parents and alumni. The letters cover a wide variety of topics - some modern, and many now quaintly archaic. Viewing the display, one finds a wide spectrum of letters, from modern crisp printouts and blurred faxes to the ornate script of handwritten letters and the uniform type of typewriters. The entertainment of the exhibit is most often found in the latter most of these documents. President James MacAlister (1840-1913) complained in a note to one of his professors: 'The students of your department seem to be falling into the habit of finding relief for their hard work by whistling. I have no doubt that they get lots of pleasure out of it, but it will not do. I presume it is done after you leave; but I think you had better say to them they must refrain from whistling until they are out of the building.' For all the nuisances of texting during classes, professors of this era are surely grateful that their classes are unlikely to be disturbed by uproarious whistling. There are also letters of scandal. A young lady was reprimanded not just for missing her classes, but even more for that fact that she was seen 'in the habit of engaging in conversation with young men.' The faculty at the time found this unacceptable. Three young women obtained the use of a lodge on the Drexel Estate for a weekend party, and successfully schemed to have gentleman callers with no chaperone present. They were promptly suspended for an egregious breach of discipline.Not every letter relates such sordid matters, though. Many letters reveal the common sentiments collegiate students and their supervisors have felt at Drexel for over a century. These provide an example of some of the immutable features of college. On display is a letter from a prospective student in 1940 who shares any modern student's desire to impress. He related, 'I have a special aptitude in science and am good in higher mathematics ... I am a boy of good habit and fond of outdoor sports such as hunting and fishing. I am on the track team at school. I am a Christian boy and active in Y.M.C.A. I will be eighteen years of age on June twenty-eighth, if God spares my life.' He closes the letter by signing himself as 'a boy who wishes to succeed.' In another letter, dated 1925, a father icily leveled an accusation of anti-southern bigotry regarding his daughter's probation for poor academic performance. President Kenneth G. Matheson (who served from 1921-1931) gracefully replied that the probation was in and of itself giving the student an additional opportunity, and that he was born and attended college in the south himself. Holly Mengel, a visiting archivist, found particular humor in one letter regarding the quality of the 1992 graduation. She noted the contents with a laugh: 'Despite being bad, it was significantly better than the previous three!' According to Robert Sieczkiewicz, Drexel archivist and proprietor of the exhibition, the exhibit does have a scholarly intent: 'The continuity of student concerns ... [The fact] that students are still concerned with the issues back then as the parents were, that the administration was the same: designing a good educational program, getting students to conform to standards of behavior - even though today we don't care about folks whistling in the Main Building.' Sieczkiewicz believes students should be aware of the ways in which using the archives can enrich their projects and research. Nothing could evidence this more than his display itself - the past is that much more vivid for being told in the voices of those who lived it. Visit The Triangle online. Davidson, Samuel. 'Past Letters to Presidents Displayed in Library.' The Triangle. Philadelphia, PA. 2/25/11. Web. 2/25/11.