Students touch living history
at Norwich© Feb. 1, 2008 Norwich University Office of Communications

Photo of Kelly Gonzalez helping a student locate letters written by mothers of Norwich students to their children.

photo by Jay Ericson Kelly Gonzalez (left) helps a student locate letters written by mothers of Norwich students to their children.

Ask Norwich University campus archivists and record specialists, and you’ll hear a variation on the idea that what’s past isn’t something transferred from encyclopedias to research papers — it’s prologue. On campus, it’s more than 200 years of touchstones assembled for students to see and handle so leaders-in-training might engender courage, honesty, temperance and the quality that synthesizes all three virtues, wisdom.

To this end, “Norwich has been lovingly collecting materials since the beginning,” said Kelly Nolin, the University archivist and special collections librarian, who spends her days in Norwich’s Kreitzberg Library, built in 1993. Nolin’s domain is fast approaching “1,200 linear feet of records.” Together with the collections and exhibits at the Sullivan Museum and History Center, these textual, photographic, audio, visual and digital materials tell the stories of the oldest private military college in the United States.

They also reflect the philosophy of Norwich’s founder, Captain Alden Partridge, who believed that classroom learning needed to be brought to life with “… practical and everyday knowledge of the world.” For Partridge, who established Norwich University in 1819, the nation’s most salient history wasn’t dusty facts. He was already two years old when America’s founders penned the Constitution, and his father was a veteran of the Battle of Saratoga, the turning point of the American Revolution.

They seem a little surprised that they are allowed to handle a sixteenth-century book or an original Partridge letter.

~ Kelly Nolin
University archivist
and special collections librarian

Partridge’s exemplars were the framers of the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation and the Bill of Rights. These were well-educated men who practiced war because they were, first and foremost, devoted citizens of the country they helped birth. For them, as for Partridge and subsequent generations of Norwich alumni, military history was the platform for the nation’s international relations, social and political issues, and economics — and a rightfully led militia, the ultimate exercise of civil authority.

This view of history remains vital for Norwich students. As undergraduates advance in the Corps of Cadets, they absorb lessons in military science, including leadership topics such as the development and implementation of U.S. national security policy. Graduate candidates can pursue a master’s degree in military history complete with photos and documents found at the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C.

Their research can be equally hands-on, according to Nolin. “They seem a little surprised that they are allowed to handle a sixteenth-century book or an original Partridge letter,” Nolin said. Providing this opportunity is “one of the most exciting aspects of my job,” she said.

Historic Colt’s Patent Firearms Manufacturing document.

“Students can say any day of the week that they want access to these materials,” said Kelly Gonzalez (’07), speaking from both her experience as a student and her role as historical collections specialist at the Sullivan Museum. Gonzalez’s work includes collecting “things that tell the story of students after they graduate. We have a lot of military and war memorabilia, old uniforms, weapons, and anything to do with war.”

Although the center holds and conserves objects of interest, its 16,000 square feet were also designed to serve as a living, interactive museum. “[It] will continue to grow not simply with artifacts and memoirs, but through the power of information technology,” said its namesake, U.S. Army Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan (’59), former chief of staff of the U.S. army and chair of Norwich’s board of trustees.

Since the museum’s opening in January 2007, students have been among its 15,000 visitors. The center’s displays include a current exhibition on The Vermont Fallen, a documentary produced by Norwich students about Vermont soldiers who have died in Iraq. “There are not that many places where you can go and see or touch this kind of memorabilia to research it,” Gonzalez said.

“Norwich University offers to teach how the military has operated since the beginning of time and how it has evolved through the twenty-first century,” said Mitch Yockelson of the National Archives, who investigates stolen documents cases for the archives.

Yockelson, who has served as an on-screen consultant to PBS, the History Channel and the Pentagon Channel, also gives an online class in Norwich’s master’s program in military history. He’s in the ironic position of instructing students who may join class from as far away as an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf. As actors on the wings of our contemporary historical stage, he said, “Norwich’s students have a vested interest in our nation’s policy, the military, and how the country runs.”