LuxEsto - The Digital Magazine of Kalamazoo College

Strands Weaver

Strands Weaver

by Jim VanSweden

In 1912, Mary Corcoran’s great-great-grandfather, a young physician, died  in a shoot-out on a Mississippi train platform. 

That’s a story strand, a tendril that, over time and like a neuron, stretches to and entangles with the story strands of other individuals and families, creating unexpected connections that remain unknown until archivists (like Mary Corcoran ’11) uncover them.

The young physician killed on the train platform leaves behind a wife and five children—four daughters and the one son who witnessed his father’s death. To help support his mother and sisters the son takes on a succession of jobs, menial work mostly. One day we find him sweeping floors and stocking shelves in a small-town pharmacy in Mississippi. And there we’ll leave the strand for a moment. It’ll come back, years later, in Michigan, where it will entwine with a strand of another family’s story, and later stretch to Queens, New York.

Lives are archives of stories. Archivists follow story strands: interviewing people, reading documents, searching libraries and organizational records repositories, sifting through attics, fact-checking someone’s memory or diary, organizing things. The pursuit may uncover new strands to be woven into the fabric of “this-is-what-happened”—a nonfiction narrative, most likely incomplete, with some strands thin or missing, yet nevertheless, a story approaching the truth.

Ninety-five years after the shootout on the train platform, high school senior and Queens native Mary Corcoran contemplates college, considering, among other options, a small liberal arts school in a vaguely familiar place called Kalamazoo. Corcoran’s grandmother, who also lives in New York, is quietly excited about that Kalamazoo College option. She had grown up in Kalamazoo. Her father, the boy on the train platform, had become a pharmaceutical sales representative for a national firm called The Upjohn Company. He’d been successful in Texas, where in 1935 he was named the first head of the Dallas branch office. He continued to rise through the company’s sales ranks. In 1943, Upjohn transferred him from Texas to its Kalamazoo home office, and in 1946 he was named vice president and director of sales.

Sixty-one years after that, in Queens, his great-granddaughter chooses K. She dreams of becoming a writer, maybe a novelist, or a teacher with thirty-or-so students in a classroom. She would become both—and neither, precisely—because of an epiphany she experiences at K.

It started with an unassuming email. Gail Griffin, the Ann V. and Donald R. Parfet Distinguished Professor of English, circulated an ad on behalf of a local woman who was seeking a part-time summer research assistant. Answering that ad becomes Corcoran’s epiphany, her baptism in archival work. The woman was the late Martha Gilmore Parfet, granddaughter of W.E. Upjohn, the founder of The Upjohn Company.

“Mrs. Parfet was intent on preserving the intertwined story of her family and the more-than-century-old company,” says Corcoran. The summer internship grew to a four-year commitment and resulted in the publication of the two-volume book, Keep the Quality Up, co-authored by Martha Parfet and Mary Corcoran. The title refers to the company’s corporate motto, purportedly a direct quote of its founder.

In addition to research and writing, Corcoran’s work on the project involved the exploration and organization of Martha Parfet’s personal archive as well as trips to institutional archives as nearby as Western Michigan University and distant as Denver, Colorado.

“The project changed my life,” says Corcoran. “When I first told my grandmother that I got the internship, she corrected my pronunciation of Martha Parfet’s surname.” Her grandmother had known the family.

“When I first met Mrs. Parfet in her home,” adds Corcoran, “I explained that I thought she might have known my grandmother’s parents, my great-grandparents, Fred and Pauline Allen.” Corcoran remembers that Mrs. Parfet smiled in surprise and proceeded to show her a piece of art—a collage, framed and hanging in Mrs. Parfet’s front hallway, a retirement gift to her husband, Ted Parfet, who had served many years as the company’s chief executive officer. “And there, beside Mr. Parfet, were the faces of several other Upjohn Company executives, including my great-grandfather.” 

“It was a very moving connection forme,” says Corcoran.

There would be more. Martha Parfet’s home and garage contained a trove of archival treasures, according to Corcoran, including the diary of Martha’s mother, W.E.’s daughter Genevieve Upjohn Gilmore. The diary mentions the 1975 death of Fred Allen with the notation: “Fred Allen died this morning. A blessing but we have lost another friend.”

Corcoran had chosen K because it encouraged pluck and risk-taking, values explicit in the adventure of K-Plan components like study abroad and the Senior Individualized Project (SIP), “or choosing a major like English,” grins Corcoran. She loved the department’s “dream team” faculty members (which included Griffin). Yet she worried (“just a bit”) about how robust and broad-spectrum the vocational possibilities of such a choice would be.

Turns out the K-Plan did more than inspire courage; it also confirmed its role in turning a calling into a career. 

Corcoran studied abroad at Trinity College (Dublin, Ireland). Her father had grown up in Dublin and immigrated to New York in the 1980s, where he met Corcoran’s mother, the great-granddaughter of the boy on the train platform. Corcoran still has family in Ireland, so in addition to studying alongside Irish students in the classroom, she was welcomed into the homes of her aunties and uncles, spending weekends immersed in their daily lives and reconnecting with cousins on outings with their Irish friends. Corcoran says, “Dublin is a tiny city and the Irish have a way of making it seem even smaller, of making connections and tightening the web. My life and career are about making connections between and among people, so it was very cool to be in a city where that sort of thinking seems like a given.”

As a K student, Corcoran gained a great deal of practical experience writing for and editing The Index, Passage and The Cauldron, the College’s student newspaper, study abroad magazine and literary magazine, respectively. She struggled with her SIP, a difficult personal memoir, and credits that challenge with teaching her to write (and helping others write) “the hard parts of a story with grace.” This strength has become a vital part of her archival work.

For Corcoran, her internship with Martha Parfet clarified a calling. Corcoran discovered she wanted to help people research and write their stories and those of the people and communities they loved. She wanted to help them explore and organize the historical artifacts that were a vital part of their stories. Corcoran’s K-Plan helped her develop the courage to make that calling a career.

“I remember sharing Keep the Quality Up with one of my graduate school professors,” says Corcoran, who earned her Master of Science in Information degree from the University of Michigan. “She warned me that such work, career-wise, would do little more than ‘keep the lights on.’ She was wrong.”

Indeed, word of Keep the Quality Up spread, and new clients came, people who wanted to have their stories written and family history collections archived. Many, like the Parfets, have an abiding love for Kalamazoo and Kalamazoo College.

That’s when Corcoran discovered that K’s “Fellowship in Learning” extends beyond the close relationships between faculty and students. As a growing number of local clients sought to hire her, Corcoran learned the fellowship in learning also means the many connections, past and present, among the College and the Kalamazoo community.

And Corcoran has done her share in broadening the fellowship in learning. Following publication of the book, Mrs. Parfet encouraged Corcoran to hire two summer interns to assist with an ongoing archival project. 

“I placed an ad with the Center for Career and Professional Development and had a dozen applicants,” remembers Corcoran, “many more than I expected.” She interviewed eight and narrowed the selection to two, both of whom were “absolutely outstanding,” says Corcoran. When she couldn’t choose between the final two applicants, Martha’s son, Don Parfet (a former Kalamazoo College board chair), allowed her to hire both Lauren Seroka ‘16 and Zoey Blake ’18. 

Like Corcoran, Seroka and Blake were inspired to careers in archival and library science. Seroka now works at the Library of Congress. Blake is a librarian at the Portage (Michigan) District Library. 

Says Corcoran: “In high school I’d thought about being a writer or a teacher, and today I’m both, in ways I hadn’t imagined. I love working with interns and realize I ‘teach’ much more effectively in one-on-one situations than I suspect I would have in a classroom setting.” Corcoran recently hired her third intern, current sophomore, Fiona Holmes ’22, who will assist Corcoran with a publication about a prominent St. Louis (Missouri) builder.

Our stories are lived and lived in; each person’s life like a house. “When I walk in my house,” writes the poet Donald Hall, “I see….” Perhaps we see first what’s prominent and valuable—the big events and relationships, the things that will tend to be included in our obituaries. Yet maybe what beguiles the eye most often is the trivial, the “detritus, valueless yet unforgettable,” and therefore indispensable to the weight of a story and a life. A good archivist, like Corcoran, weaves together everything she can so that as little as possible is lost, and the story is shared.  

A Fellowship in Learning

Lauren Seroka ’16 was looking for a post-graduation job at K’s Center for Career and Professional Development when she saw the posting for an internship with Mary Corcoran. Seroka was a history major who had already gained some archival experience at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum and the Henry Ford Museum while in college, and she found herself deeply engaged in the process of cataloging and digitizing the Upjohn and Gilmore family histories. “Mary was the one who really taught me the foundations of archival work. I’m so appreciative of the opportunity I had to work with Mary and the Parfet family. It put me in a really good position for graduate school.” 

Seroka went to the University of Michigan for her master’s. While in school, she had various jobs in the U of M library system, as well as an internship at Harvard Library. Seroka recalls, “One day at work I found myself holding a letter from the Salem witch trials, and it was exciting because I had taken the Salem Possessed first-year seminar at K. It’s really powerful to have that physical connection to the past.” 

Seroka has found there’s no better place to weave connections to the past than at the oldest federal cultural institution in the United States—the Library of Congress. That’s where Seroka works now as a digital collections specialist. “My internship with Mary really inspired my love for archives,” she says. “And now I have a job that I love.”  

Zoey Blake ’18 was working in the archives at the Upjohn Library Commons her sophomore year when her supervisor, Lisa Murphy ’98, shared the posting for an internship with Mary Corcoran. A history major with a concentration in American Studies, Blake was considering a career in library sciences; she thought this internship might help her discern what direction to take within the field. Blake was thrilled when Corcoran offered her the position, and within hours of finishing her final exams, she was on the job. She spent the summer scanning photos, stitching together old newspaper clippings in Photoshop, assembling digital scrapbooks and researching the Gilmore family. Blake loved the work and appreciated the opportunity to see another side of archival work, different from her job at the College. 

Today Blake, who is originally from Ypsilanti, Michigan, is a library assistant at the Portage (Michigan) District Library. “I’ve worked in libraries since high school, and my mother is also a librarian,” says Blake. “I’ve always been fairly certain that I wanted to be an archivist; however, working in a public library has allowed me to consider the importance of the library science field to local communities and society as a whole. I have a new appreciation for my chosen field of study and can’t wait to get back to archival work.” As she evaluates graduate schools, Corcoran has counseled her on programs and career options. “She’s given me advice about school and has encouraged me to take my time,” says Blake. “I really admire how Mary has carved out this career for herself, and I’m grateful for the opportunity I’ve had to work with her.”