First alumnus to be Iowa State president…

Iowa State University announced a new president this past week.

Others have written more insightful comments about the choice of Wendy Wintersteen than I can. But I did want to report on my own small contribution to the broader historical record; that contribution was simply maintenance, but it seems that such maintenance is needed.

In perusing the online reactions to this announcement, I happened upon a story by the Iowa Informer. I was vexed to see Wintersteen described as the first Iowa State alumnus to become its president.

I knew for a fact that Iowa State’s 10th president, James Hilton, was an alumnus.

Happily, the Informer was responsive on Twitter and updated the story. I remain a bit resistant to their assertion that “alumnus” is gender-neutral… but they did change the story, not only to use the modern, gender-neutral “alum” but to describe Wintersteen as “the second” such. Cheers.

Meanwhile, I’m willing to take their word that “multiple sources were saying she was the first.” It wasn’t correct, but I’m aware that such historical record “resets” happen. In fact, this is the second time I have been involved in pushing back against one which involved a central-Iowa university…

Years and years ago, while an employee of Drake University’s Marketing & Communications Dept., I found a copy of Drake University through seventy-five years gathering dust in our office. I opened it up, and found a fascinating insider history of the institution which (50 years later) was my then-employer.

Out of all the splendid anecdotes in Charles Ritchey’s book, I think the most memorable may be that of another “double first.” In Ritchey’s telling, the Drake University Bulldogs hosted the first football game west of the Mississippi River to be played under electric lighting.

What’s really memorable, however, is that they did so twice.

Apparently the first such attempt, very very early in the 20th century, was so far ahead of its time that the night game beneath “sputtering arc lights” was left a one-off event, and basically forgotten. So completely forgotten, that when the Bulldogs played another night game with better lighting technology a generation later, it too was reported as “the first football game west of the Mississippi River to be played under electric lighting.”

Ritchey caught this, and set out the complete facts in his book. But 50 years later, I found that the bias toward more recent “firsts” is not so easily thwarted.

I don’t recall the details, but some or other local news item c. 2004 described Drake’s second night game as a “first,” with no mention of the precedent years earlier. I e-mailed the author, who in this case was less ready to accept correction than the Informer… the correspondence is somewhere in an archived file, probably. In any event, this week’s more successful nudging of the public memory provided a new context for that earlier attempt.

“History became legend. Legend… became myth…”

It seems that such is a natural tendency. But I will at least put up a fight.

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