Fridays with Fred: History Professor and Second College Archivist, Bob Irrmann

Take a look at popular Beloit College professor and archivist Bob Irrmann.

As a student entering Beloit in 1935, Robert H. Irrmann fell under the spell of legendary history professor and first Beloit College Archivist, Robert K. Richardson, whom Irrmann later described as “one of the greatest intellectual ornaments that this college had ever had.” A history major, Irrmann graduated in 1939, went to graduate school at Harvard and Indiana University, and taught at Denison University before rejoining his mentor in 1948 as a professor in Beloit’s history department.

It did not take long for Bob Irrmann to become one of the most popular professors at the college, where he twice was named “Teacher of the Year” and gained a reputation as a brilliant, spellbinding lecturer, specializing in medieval, English, political, constitutional, Tudor, Stuart, and Western history. He once said, “I’ve always worked on one assumption: that if I wasn’t enthusiastic about the subject, why should the students be? If I was boring, then the students had every right to be bored…” This photograph dates from around 1960 and shows Irrmann at work in a Morse-Ingersoll classroom. Irrmann retired from teaching in 1980, moved to Madison in the late 1980s, and passed away in 1998 at the age of 81.

Like Richardson before him, Bob Irrmann had a strong affection for the college and became fascinated by its history, collecting and organizing historical materials, writing articles, and giving talks. In 1953 he became only the second Beloit College Archivist and oversaw the move from a nook in the old Carnegie Library (today the World Affairs Center) to a fully appointed facility in the new Colonel Robert H. Morse Library in 1962.

In the fall of 1983, I was a student worker in the library. One day my supervisor, Cree Joslin, asked me to take some materials to the College Archives. I entered through a door in what resembled a chain-link fence in the map area of the library’s top floor, spotted a file cabinet piled high with photographs, shelves crammed with intriguing boxes and books, and on the far wall, a mysterious looking vault door. I went back downstairs and said, “What is that place?” Within a short time I was working for Dr. Irrmann, as I called him (he called me “kid”). Irrmann was a wonder to work with. He shared his passion for history, his joy in discovery, his enthusiasm for life. He gradually began entrusting me with difficult tasks, complicated research questions, and finally, the combination to that ever-enticing vault. By 1986 he decided I was ready. He resigned his post and I became Beloit College’s third archivist. Even years after we’d moved to the lower level of the library, we’d talk on the phone and he’d say, “Oh yes, that document is on the third shelf down from the top in aisle four,” and I’d have to remember the old setup. He often graced me with pithy mottoes such as, “Never throw out a good Xerox,” which was code for “Never forget to be as much of a packrat as I was and as Professor Richardson was.” Sound advice for the archivist-to-be.

The Beloit Historical Society will induct Robert Irrmann and sixth college president Miller Upton into the Beloit Hall of Fame on September 19.

Fred Burwell ’86
September 09, 2010

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