Fred Burwell’86 claims he “didn’t know anything about Beloit College” when he came to Beloit from Philadelphia, following a girlfriend who had enrolled at the college in 1983. The flame on that youthful relationship quickly flickered out, but Burwell soon found a new and enduring love—the college itself. And in a relationship that has spanned nearly four decades, Burwell has come to know more about Beloit College and its history than anyone else on earth.
A stickler for accuracy, Burwell, the longtime college archivist, might dispute that claim on the grounds that it cannot be empirically verified. But he’d be hard-pressed to refute it, and if he tried to, he’d likely be drowned out by a chorus of admirers—students, alumni, faculty, and administrators—who have benefited from his knowledge, guidance, and good nature through the years.
One of those admirers is professor Ellen Joyce, chair of the history department, who regards Burwell as an equal partner in the 10 classes they have taught together on historical research methods using the archives’ rich collection. Last June, when she received an email from Burwell telling her he planned to retire at the end of August, “I was so sad, I couldn’t reply for a week,” Joyce says. “Fred leaving is a huge loss.”
But it was a huge gain for the college 37 years ago, when a grateful Burwell, despite a spotty academic record at Bennington College in Vermont followed by a series of retail jobs—including an unsuccessful two-day stint scooping ice cream—was admitted as a transfer student. “One of the things I really value about Beloit is that it lets people in based on their potential,” he says. “A lot of people find their niche here. I certainly did.”
That niche mainly involved writing and editing, skills that Joyce says, along with a laid-back demeanor, made Fred, as he came to be known by everyone on campus, “the person to go to for students who wanted to improve their writing.” While a student himself, Burwell served as co-editor of the Round Table newspaper and Avatar literary magazine and, working with English professor Clint McCown, helped found the Beloit Fiction Journal, staying on as associate editor after graduating in 1986.
He also had a work-study job in the Morse Library, which led to his discovery of the College Archives, then located on the top floor behind a chain-link fence. A self-described “pack-rat,” Burwell says he began collecting things—baseball cards, stamps, vintage photographs, even rocks—at an early age when his book-loving parents took him to flea markets, second-hand shops, and used-book stores. “I loved the thrill of the hunt, the search for treasure,” he says. The archives, he felt pretty certain, were worthy of exploration.
Burwell first had to hunt down Robert H. Irrmann, a 1939 Beloit graduate and retired history professor considered by many on campus to be something of a treasure himself. Irrmann served as the college’s second archivist, beginning in 1953 and taking over for his mentor, history professor Robert Kimball Richardson, who established the position and held it for more than half a century, starting in 1901. Irrmann, whom Burwell regards as a mentor, quickly took a shine to the curious student and nominated him as his successor.
Burwell stayed on after graduation as a full-time library employee, dividing his efforts between the archives and the reference desk. Although he did not pursue an advanced degree, Burwell was able to learn much of what he may have missed in graduate school from reference librarian Christine Nelson. He also discovered in her something he could not find in the archives—“my soul mate.” They were married in 1990 and had a son, Ben, in 1992. Burwell says “seeing Chris more” is one of the benefits of retirement.
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Ninth College President Victor E. Ferrall, who regards his tenure at Beloit as “the most important years of my professional life,” describes Burwell as “delightful to work with, skilled and incredibly knowledgeable. He’s a treasure for a small college. He also had an incredibly messy office.”
“Even messier than mine,” says Joyce, “but he knows where everything is!” She credits Burwell with expanding the archives well beyond “the official record of the college” to include materials that provide a view into student life. “He’d pull out underground newspapers, sorority scrapbooks—sources that really engage students that I wouldn’t have thought to look for,” she says. Joyce marvels at Burwell’s ability to connect with students, especially those who may not have an interest in history, by directing them to personal documents that illustrate Beloit’s connection to important historical events, from the Civil War to the Civil Rights movement. He also created the Diary Repository at Beloit College, a collection of diaries unrelated to Beloit by people from various walks of life.
“Students love working with Fred,” says history professor Beatrice McKenzie. “He’s warm and open, yet always professional, a humanist with a quirky veneer.” McKenzie says Burwell is “such an interesting person” that she assigned students in groups to write a biography of him. “It was a methods assignment, so they could see, in a metanarrative way, how people would write differing accounts of the same events,” she says. “There were all sorts of nuggets in Fred’s own history that he willingly shared with students.”
McKenzie also notes Burwell’s “unfailing attention to detail,” never more clear than when she asked him to review the draft of a historical article she was writing about the town of Beloit in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. “One of the pages had more red from Fred’s pen than there was type,” she says. “I saved it and showed it to my students.” Not only did it provide some laughs, she adds, it also illustrated the usefulness of criticism, which students can mistakenly perceive as disapproval.
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When senior Eva Laun-Smith is not busy making history setting school records as a track-and-field All American, she can often be found in the library basement, home of the College Archives. She began working as an assistant to Burwell the summer before her sophomore year, after becoming acquainted with him while doing research for a freshman history class.
“Fred is legitimately my biggest influence at Beloit,” she says. “I don’t think I actually knew what an archivist was when I entered college. Now I’m applying for a Fulbright, and I want to get a master’s in the area of archival science and digital history.” Until a new archivist is hired, one of the college librarians, Laun-Smith, and several other student workers are filling in.
“The first thing Fred told me was that working in the archives is a service,” Laun-Smith says. “People ask all sorts of questions, and you have to be ready and willing to help. That’s how he viewed the job.”
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In 2010, Burwell began bringing college history to life for students, faculty, and alumni by writing an online column titled Fridays With Fred in which he related stories from the archives in narrative history form. Over a six-year period, he penned a total of 150 nearly weekly installments, creating an accessible resource that has itself become part of Beloit’s historical record. He also found time to write and publish a novel, Prairie Hill, a reminder to himself that he really enjoys writing. That, he says, is what he hopes to do in retirement, with a second half-completed novel waiting among projects to pursue.
Burwell, who lives in Beloit, expects little trouble keeping in touch with colleagues but says he’ll miss interacting with students. He recalls an encounter a few years ago when a student who had read some of his columns expressed surprise upon meeting him, saying, “There really IS a Fred?”
It’s not hard to imagine, sometime down the road, a future college archivist telling a student, “Yes, there really was a Fred.”
Paul Engleman’76 is a writer based in Chicago. He plans to donate his writer’s fee for this story to the Stephen Moncada Street’77 Scholarship Fund at Beloit.
Fred Burwell once described the College Archives as “the place where so many Beloit stories slumber, patiently waiting for reawakening.” Here are a few items that he unearthed and finds interesting:
- In the 19th century, the first college janitor was Johnny Pfeffer, a beloved figure nicknamed “The Professor of Dust and Ashes.” Legend has it that, as the college bell ringer, if he saw a favorite student running late to class or chapel services, he would ring the bell longer so they appeared to be on time.
- Commencement was canceled in 1864 because the entire senior class was off fighting in the Civil War.
- In 1926, Professor Theodore Lyman Wright was found naked and bloodied in North College (now Campbell Hall) and died shortly after in the hospital, an apparent homicide never solved.
- During the Great Depression, the college accepted farm produce in lieu of money as payment for tuition.
- In 1961, Freedom Rider Jim Zwerg’62 woke up Beloit’s conservative student body to the possibilities of the Civil Rights movement. Later in the 1960s, the anti-war movement saw draft card burnings on campus, and the feminist movement brought about the college’s “Sisterhood,” which became the Women’s Center, now known as the Feminist Collective.