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A Shepherd For Memories

A Teacher And Music Librarian in 1957, Ethel Bacon Was A Reluctant Archivist

February 21, 2007
By ROBERT A. FRAHM, Courant Staff Writer

The announcement, marking one of the most important moments in the history of higher education in Hartford, took place in a recital hall at the old Hartt College of Music.

Among those who witnessed it was a young music teacher.

"My reaction was: Great!" Ethel Bacon said, recalling the scene as a row of businessmen in dark suits announced that the music school had agreed to merge with Hillyer College and the Hartford Art School. Gov. Abraham Ribicoff later sealed the merger on Feb. 21, 1957 - 50 years ago today - when he signed a bill creating the University of Hartford.

A few years later, Bacon would be chronicling events at the new university in a job that would link her with the history of the university's growth over much of its existence. It is safe to say that no one knows more about the private university, its good times and bad, than the 84-year-old Bacon, who is semi-retired after working 40 years as the school's archivist.

"I've been through the whole thing," Bacon said recently from her home in Madison, where she recounted her affection for a university that began by holding classes in various locations, including a rented high school, before moving to its present campus on the Hartford-West Hartford-Bloomfield border.

Now a sprawling campus of red brick buildings, the university houses its archives in the Mortensen Library. Much of what is recorded and saved there is the work of Bacon, who can rattle off dates and places and can pinpoint the location of records from memory.

"She kind of is a walking archives," said Margaret Mair, who came to the university in 2005, succeeding Bacon as a full-time archivist. "She really has done an exceptional job maintaining the archives. I've worked in a lot of places. This is one of the best organized I've ever seen."

Bacon, who taught piano and organ, had no formal training as an archivist when Vincent B. Coffin, the school's chancellor, asked her to take the job as the university's first archivist in 1966.

"I said, `What are you doing to me? I can't do this,'" she recalled.

Still, Bacon, who also worked as a music librarian, had a fundamental respect for history. Even before she became the archivist, she recalls saving the small copper dome that had been part of the former Hartt College building on Broad Street in Hartford, where she and the others at the music school once called themselves "the Broad Street gang."

"So many storms went on above and underneath that dome," she said.

Although archivists are taught what to save and what not to save, Bacon was inclined to err on the side of caution, saving boxes and boxes of papers and other memorabilia.

"My theory is it's such a young university, I'm going to save an awful lot of stuff," she said. "It's amazing what little things you find tucked in here and there."

She saved records of speeches by luminaries such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Marshall McLuhan and oddities such as three strands of Beethoven's hair, framed under glass and donated by a West Hartford music teacher in the mid-1960s.

The King speech, given in Hartford in 1959, was resurrected from the archives a year ago as officials began gathering historical documents in preparation for the university's 50th anniversary celebration.

Bacon was there as new buildings sprouted on the campus between the 1960s and 1980s. She was there as the university added several other schools and colleges. It now has seven divisions.

And she was there a decade ago, as the university was celebrating its 40th anniversary and struggling through an economic downturn that led to budget deficits.

"We've always scraped through," Bacon said.

Today, the university is in better shape, boasting changes such as a new science complex and enrolling 7,300 students from all over the United States and more than 60 nations.

"The university is doing pretty well," said Bacon, who worked under every administration from Chancellors Coffin and Archibald Woodruff to Presidents Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, Humphrey Tonkin and now Walter Harrison. She saved and catalogued old student newspapers, minutes of meetings - even a photograph of Trachtenberg diving into a new pool at the university.

"I don't know if he knows we have it," she said.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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