I’ll begin this blog entry by addressing an age-old conundrum head on: If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? I honestly don’t think so. In order for there to be a sound, you need someone to be on the receiving end. A falling tree produces vibrations—big ones—in the surrounding land, water, and air that can only be interpreted as sound by structures in the ear, be they human, bird, bunny, fox, or squirrel. Without an ear or two in the vicinity, it’s all just meaningless molecular vibrations. There’d be no crash of a trunk, no rustle of leaves, no flapping of startled wings. No sound.
Paradoxically, if you ask one or more knowledgeable sources a simple question, and no one utters a word—not one person produces a single sound vibration for your ear to hear—have they answered your question? I’d argue that they have. This time, instead of your ears doing the interpreting, it’s your brain. And my brain is telling me that if a person who’s in the know refuses to answer a reasonable and politely-asked question, then the answer may be of an incriminating nature. Somebody, prove me and my brain wrong.
I’m talking about the interview that was conducted with Carl Knox’s former secretary relatively recently by someone affiliated with the university that was summarized on one side of a laser-printed page and filed away in the university’s archives. First, I guesstimated that the timeframe of the interview was between 2001 and 2020 based mostly on computer and printer technology. Then we were able to narrow the cut-off to 2015, the year in which the Western College Memorial Archives, where the summary had been housed, were moved to University Archives. Later, I ascertained that the interview likely occurred between 2001 and 2008 after learning that the most recent document to be added to the vertical filing cabinet where the summary was kept was done so in 2008. We don’t know which document or documents was added in 2008—their record-keeping system was woefully imprecise—but we know that nothing in the file cabinet arrived after that year, so the summary can’t be any more recent. I’ll explain that discovery in a little more detail below.
But the time period in question is about to shrink again. Based on records posted on the Miami Libraries’ website as well as documents I’ve obtained through public records requests, I believe the interview with Carl Knox’s secretary happened between January 2006 and December 2008. Let’s think about that for a second. Here we have a document whose origin Miami officials have been claiming not to know anything about—a document that, I believe, was purposely undated and unsourced in order not to raise any flags with anyone who happened upon it—and we’ve narrowed it down to occurring sometime between (I believe) 2006 and 2008. I also have a pretty good idea of who wrote it. Do you think the people at the heart of this little cover-up are impressed? Maybe! Or maybe they’re really annoyed. It’s so hard to tell what they’re feeling when they’re not speaking to you.
The 2006-2008 timeframe may sound familiar to some of you. I’d first proposed it on Facebook a couple months ago, at which time a savvy Miami alum (A BIG thank you to Kristin Woosley! Guuuurl, we see you and your amazing memory!) who was a student back then was able to provide even more helpful identifying info. Her info was so helpful, in fact, I felt as if I may have a tough time promising anonymity if someone happened to come forward. For this reason, I decided to take down the post and to conduct my research out of view.
That research has been ongoing, and I’ve discovered some promising new details. But after receiving the silent treatment about those discoveries from so many people, I’ve decided to forego that strategy. What the heck, let’s bring some of this new info into the light of day, shall we? I’ll still refer to Carl Knox’s former secretary as AD (short for assistant to the dean), and I’ll continue to protect other people’s identities for various reasons as well. But whenever possible, especially when discussing people who are acting in official capacities, they’ll be named. Also, let’s do this in one of my favorite formats: Q&A.
Why do you think the interview took place no later than 2008?
The 2008 comes from a public records request I’d submitted. As we’ve discussed, the summary is part of the Western College Memorial Archives in folder number 18, titled Ghosts and Legends. When archivists receive donations, the standard practice is to create an accessions record for that material documenting where the material came from, when it arrived, a description of the contents, the size of the collection, and other details. Since 2015, Miami University has subscribed to ArchivesSpace, an online database for cataloguing its holdings. Knowing this, I emailed the Office of the General Counsel (OGC), requesting the accessions records that, to my understanding, should have been created for the interview summary.
What I received from the OGC was an explanatory email as well as a number of screen grabs from ArchivesSpace. The email said that the record had been created by Jacky Johnson, the university archivist, long after the document had been acquired as well as after the university’s transition to ArchivesSpace. “This document predates our cataloguing system and our current University Archives employees,” said OGC representative Aimee Smart.
The screen grabs weren’t specific to the document in question or even folder 18, but pertained to the vertical file cabinet in which the folder was housed. The vertical file was one of the most frequently visited file cabinets in the Western College Archives reading room. In addition to Ghosts and Legends, its subjects include Western College presidents, Western College faculty and staff; and Western College buildings, such as Peabody Hall and Kumler Memorial Chapel. Sadly, most of the fields of the accessions record were left blank. Johnson’s name occupied one of the fields, and in another field was an estimate that the file was two cubic yards in size. However, one section was helpful: Dates. Under “Inclusive Dates,” which is defined on an archivist website as “The dates of the oldest and most recent items in a collection, series, or folder,” the Begin date was 1810—one year after Miami was founded—and the End date was 2008. Therefore, if the recordkeeping is accurate, AD’s interview had to have taken place no later than 2008. I’m inclined to think that AD was interviewed in 2008, but let’s not pin ourselves down just yet.
Why do you think the interview happened no earlier than 2006?
This was more of a guess, but it makes so much sense. On Miami’s Special Collections and Archives website is a page titled “Miami Stories Oral” (short for Oral History Project). This page lists a number of interviews that had been conducted with past students, staff members, and administrators of the university, which seems like a natural fit for AD’s interview as well. In addition, nearly all of the interviews had taken place during a four-year period, from the beginning of 2006 through the end of 2009. When I factored in the accessions end date of 2008, I arrived at the 2006-2008 timeframe.
What “helpful identifying info” did Woosley provide?
After I posted my theory on Facebook, Woosley immediately recognized the Miami Stories/Oral History Project as being part of Miami’s bicentennial, which was officially celebrated in 2009. She mentioned how students and alumni were being videotaped during alumni reunions in the years leading up to the big event, and that detail jived with what I’d discovered in the digital archives. I’d noticed how a large chunk of the interviews had been conducted over the alumni weekends beginning in 2006, while other interviews—mostly of people who lived near Oxford—were conducted at other times of the year. (The recordings can be found online here.) This was a huge breakthrough and immediately opened up new research possibilities.
Why was having AD’s interview potentially tied to Miami’s bicentennial so helpful to your research?
If the interview with AD had been conducted as a stand-alone effort in which some student or staff member had simply thought it would be a nice thing to do, then the missing source materials would be way too hard to track down. There wouldn’t be a trail. But if it’s tied to Miami’s bicentennial, documents would have been produced throughout the four-year process. Funders would be thanked, coordinators would be tapped, budgets would be tabulated, progress would be charted, and achievements ballyhooed—all on paper and obtainable through public records requests. And with all of those documents, new details would potentially dribble out that could lead to even more record requests, and eventually, evidence of an interview with AD.
Furthermore, because AD had been affiliated with Miami Libraries for most of her work life as well as afterward (I was told that she had a courtesy office in King Library), I’d always felt that her interview was conducted by someone with the library. Well, guess who played a major participatory role in the bicentennial? The Miami Libraries, with Jerome Conley, dean of Miami Libraries, serving on the Bicentennial Commission. So, that fits too.
And? Did you find any evidence of AD’s missing interview?
I think so. Although I’m sure lots more documents were generated back then (and to be fair, 2009 was 12 years ago, so I’m glad to have what they were able to provide), there was one that was especially noteworthy. The document is a progress report that provided a running count of all of the taped interviews that had been conducted from 2006 up through December 2008. At the bottom of the report, above the line indicating that there were 91 recordings in all, there’s this: “Other recordings not on Website for miscellaneous reasons,” and after the tab is the number 3. Was one of those three recordings AD?
I tried to think of other possible documents that might reveal the names of the three unposted interviewees. One of the narrative updates had discussed the taping and editorial process, which required that all of the tapes first be converted from DVT to DVD format by the library’s digital staff. I submitted a request seeking any internal documents from those staff in which they tracked every video they’d converted for the Oral History Project during the 2006-2008 timeframe. That request yielded nothing. Another narrative described how consent forms had been signed ahead of time, so I requested AD’s signed consent form. After weeks of waiting, the email I received from the OGC was “Ms. Wenger, We are unable to locate records related to an interview with [AD].” I also sought a comprehensive listing of all OHP interviewees, but the list I received was incomplete, and of course, AD’s name wasn’t there. However, I did find one person or possibly two people on that list whose interviews hadn’t been posted online.
What about the people most closely associated with the Oral History Project? What did they have to say about AD and the three missing interviews?
I’ve had email conversations with several people who had worked on the Oral History Project. Our conversations were “on background” and therefore I won’t be providing their names or direct quotes. The people who responded did so quickly and said that they didn’t conduct an interview with AD. I believe them. One also said that they didn’t recall AD being interviewed for the Oral History Project (I believe that person was speaking honestly too), though the others didn’t go that far. As for the three interviews that weren’t posted online, no one could shed light on that question.
There was one retiree who didn’t respond to my email. I’ll refer to that person as Retiree A. Retiree A had interviewed several people for the project, at least one of whom wasn’t posted online.
How do you know that Retiree A even read your email?
I don’t. However, I sent via USPS a hard copy of the email and some follow-up documents to their home, asking them to let me know either way if they had conducted the interview with AD. I also asked them if they knew about the three interviews that hadn’t been posted online and, again, to please let me know either way. That package was delivered on Monday, June 21. As of today, I haven’t heard from Retiree A.
Wasn’t there another retiree whom you thought had knowledge of the interview? Have you heard from him?
As you may recall, I discuss another retiree quite a bit in “The blog post I was hoping never to write.” To help avoid confusion, let’s refer to that person as Retiree B. To date, he has not responded to my email. But again, as some of you have pointed out, there’s no way to be sure that he read it.
To help address that question, this past April, I Fed-Exed a follow-up letter with additional background information to Retiree B’s home, once again promising anonymity and asking him to check his university email account and to let me know if he knew anything about AD’s interview. I’m still waiting to hear from him. I also promised Retiree B that I wouldn’t be approaching him ever again with that question. People have a right to live their lives without forever being bothered by the likes of me. He knows I’d like to speak with him. I’m just hoping he decides to come forward on his own. If I’m off base, I’d very much like to know that. And if he has information about the Tammen case, well, I think he knows by now that I’d like to hear that too.
What about the higher-ups? What do they have to say?
William Modrow’s response
Do you remember back in February 2021, when I was asking Bill Modrow, head of Special Collections, about AD’s interview? In an effort to find someone who knew something about it, I was trying to get a handle on how they went about conducting interviews of former employees. The exact words I used were: “how staff members arrange and conduct interviews with former employees for a project spearheaded by Collections, such as for the oral history project, and how those interview materials are subsequently processed.” I’d actually used those three words with him: Oral History Project.
Do you know what Modrow didn’t mention to me? He didn’t mention Miami’s bicentennial to me, which would have been a normal response. You know, like “Oh, the Oral History Project was a short-term project for the bicentennial. We don’t do those interviews routinely.”
No, his response to me was “We do not conduct oral history interviews. I do not have the resources to do this nor do we have an Oral History program. What we have done in the past – Freedom Summer for example came with the resources and partners to accomplish.”
I specifically asked about the Oral History Project and he answers with Freedom Summer. Was he trying to throw me off course by diverting my attention away from the bicentennial? I don’t know. Maybe the obvious response didn’t occur to him at that moment, but it certainly looks that way to me.
Jerome Conley’s response
Several weeks ago, I emailed Dr. Conley, dean of Miami Libraries, providing my evidence concerning the Oral History Project videos that hadn’t been posted online. (The 2008 progress report states there were three, but a tally up through 2009 indicates that there may be four.) Because Dr. Conley sat on the Presidential Bicentennial Commission, a leading endeavor of which was the Oral History Project, I felt he would be in a position to answer the question. If he didn’t know the answer, he would know who would.
I asked him or a spokesperson to let me know about who the individuals were and why their interviews weren’t posted. I didn’t mention AD’s name in that email and I didn’t provide a deadline, saying that I figured it may take some time to track down those answers. This past Wednesday at around 11:30 a.m., I wrote him again, letting him know that I’d be posting my blog entry sometime this weekend, and requesting his response by Friday at 5 p.m. ET. His response at a little after noon was:
I would like to thank you for your note. I was on vacation with my family earlier this month. I am unaware of the videos that you mentioned.
At about 2:30 p.m. that day, I followed up with this email:
Thank you so much for getting back to me. Here’s what I’m attempting to ascertain: Do you know of any reason that I shouldn’t believe that one of the three unposted OHP interviews was with [AD]?
In other words, the 2008 progress report (attached) states that there were three “recordings not on Website for miscellaneous reasons.” Was [AD] one of these three recordings?
Again, thank you.
5 p.m. has come and gone and, so far, I haven’t heard back from him.
Do you know who put the kibosh on AD’s interview?
We still don’t know if AD’s interview was one of the three Oral History Project interviews that weren’t posted, but for this question, let’s say hypothetically that it was. I’d asked organizers of the Oral History Project who had veto power over the videos—namely who might have made the decision not to post a particular interview, for whatever reason. No one knew of any measures that were in place for pulling a video.
After a tape was converted to DVD, only light technical editing would be performed, if needed. Somewhere in the process, University Archives staff reviewed the digitized tape and Web copy before it was posted online. By the sound of it, University Archives was one of the last stops before a video was posted to the website. Though that doesn’t mean they would have been the ones who decided not to post a video, they may have had a good idea regarding why the decision was made.
Do you know who wrote the summary?
I can’t say for sure who wrote AD’s interview summary, but I think it was someone from University Archives. Here’s why:
The location of the document
The summary sheet was originally stored in the Western College Memorial Archives, which had been a satellite to the University Archives. (Those archives are now housed on the third floor of King Library along with the University Archives.) It’s weird that it would have been placed there, though, since the Western College archives is intended to cover topics related specifically to Western College. Regardless, because it was part of the archives and because AD was a long-time friend of the library, I’ve always felt that someone from University Archives had typed it up and placed it there. If anyone has evidence to the contrary, you know where to find me.
AD’s job title
When I made my initial guess as to when the interview summary was typed up, one consideration was AD’s job title. Because AD was Carl Knox’s secretary—that’s how she referred to herself in a memo—I found it telling that whoever typed up the summary referred to her as the assistant to the dean of men. That sounded more recent, since the word secretary was mothballed sometime around 2001. That’s why I had 2001 at the lower end of my timeframe. (It’s a moot point now since we’ve moved it up to 2006.)
As luck would have it, I was looking through a 1952-53 Miami University Directory one day when I landed on AD’s name. Even though she informally went by the title of secretary, in the directory, she’s referred to as “asst. in office of dean of men and to freshman advisers.” “Assistant to the Dean of Men” sounds a lot like “asst. in office of dean of men,” which leads me to believe that whoever was typing up the summary sheet had access to the 1952-53 directory. The 1952-53 phone directory, as with other directories, can be found in University Archives.
Here we go again, right? 😉 Even though I’m not the best person at analyzing typefaces (see the blog post on St. Clair Switzer’s typewriter), maybe I’m better at recognizing laser printer fonts than typewriter fonts? This could be a very minor point, which is why I’m placing it here, near the bottom of this blog post, but I believe the font used in the summary matches the font of the Oral History Project reports.
Hear me out. When I first wrote about AD’s interview summary in December 2020, I said that the font seemed to be Times New Roman. And what do you know, when I typed the summary in Times New Roman and compared that to the photo I took of the summary from the archives, they looked the same to me. So far, so good.
WELL, when the OGC sent me the reports I’d requested from the Oral History Project, most were written in Times New Roman. I know…it’s a popular font choice for some. It’s also rather, um…dull, shall we say? But the point here is that whoever typed up the summary could have also been a central player with the Oral History Project, and the folks in University Archives certainly occupied a pivotal position on that team.
Are you OK? You seem down.
Oh, gosh. I was trying to hide it, but yeah, I’m bummed. Here’s me, a wannabe author who relies on archival information for this book I’m working on, and I’ve found myself in a faceoff with what used to be my favorite place on campus. Every trip to Oxford used to include a visit to University Archives. While, at this point, it’s difficult for me to determine what else I can do to get to the bottom of the Miami Libraries’ interview with AD, I don’t plan to walk away. But I’m not gonna lie. It’s disheartening.
Why do you think the university is acting this way?
Actually, I think it’s important to look at the actions of individuals versus thinking of the university as some sort of impenetrable monolith, though sometimes it feels like the latter. The two most common responses from people who I think may know something about AD’s interview is to not respond at all, or to attempt to answer as much as they can honestly, leaving out anything that would put them in danger of lying. Because—and I truly believe this—most people don’t like to lie, especially people who work in a library.
However, I also think that some individuals at the university have been deceptive, and in a couple instances, untruthful. (They know who they are.) I will also say this: Whatever it is that’s keeping people from coming forward must be pretty damn big.