I love my job. It's full of variety and interesting challenges. But often the tedium of technical writing, problem-solving, stretching my department's funds, and the stress of navigating interpersonal relationships in order to accomplish a common goal leave me wiped out by the end of the day. So it was with a certain level of surprise Wednesday evening that I realized I was bouncing around the house with plenty of energy after a day of work and my kids were in bed. I had to stop and ask myself, "What made the difference today?" My answer? Simply that I had spent the entire day researching an interesting family and making connections between pieces of information I had read or collected over the past twelve years. Just the sort of work I love best.
It all started with a project to learn the stories of some of the people honored with Union College's golden cords. The golden cords are a tradition dating back to 1906. Over the years many devices have served to hold the cords–all with a centerpiece representing Union College in some form flanked by a world map of some type spreading out on either side. Gold string or thread stretches between "Union College" and the countries where the college's alumni have or are serving internationally. While new golden cords continue to be hung each year, over a century after the first cords were hung, few people know or remember the early honorees. At Union there are currently three of us very interested in uncovering these stories and making them public. My current effort is creating an exhibit which will be installed in time for our new president's inauguration on March 5.
So I was just beginning the job of deciding which stories to include when our alumni director emailed me, asking to me check Ancestry.com to verify a name in her database, Margaret Bresee Reed. What followed was domino-effect. I quickly learned that Margaret was the second wife of Floyd Edgar Bresee. The two served together in Peru in the 1920s and 1930s. But what I also learned was that Floyd's first wife was Ruth Rhoads who died of influenza in February 1920. That triggered a memory from this past summer when a visiting researcher introduced me to Mildred Rhoads Bennett, Ruth's youngest sister and a founder of Willa Cather studies and the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial and Educational Foundation. At the time I had picked up Mildred's autobiography, The Winter is Past, and discovered that Floyd was her brother-in-law. Now Floyd's real claim to fame is in his role as the first Seventh-day Adventist chaplain in the United States Army to be sanctioned by the church's General Conference. I have been aware of this part of his history for several years from reading Robert Mole's God Also Loves Military People,which includes Floyd's biography.
In the process of reviewing Mildred's book to refresh my memory of what she had to say about her brother-in-law, I discovered that her other two sisters also served as missionaries with their husbands and also have golden cords hung for them. Norma was the oldest sister. She married Gustavus Benson Youngberg, better known as Gus, who died in Borneo in 1944 as a result of time he spent in a Japanese POW camp. Norma went on to write many Adventist mission stories well-familiar to many long-time Adventists. Her books continue to be reprinted. Ruth was the second sister and died young as I've already noted. The third sister, Belle, married Gerald H. Minchin who would himself die while still serving internationally (And for those of you familiar with another well-known Adventist author, Dorothy Minchin-Comm, these are her parents). But not before he and his sister-in-law Norma co-authored Under Sealed Orders: The Story of Gus Youngberg.
So after learning something notable about each sister in the family, I wondered about their one brother to survive childhood, James. Another brother, John, died as a young child. I haven't uncovered anything about James himself, as I was leafing through files yesterday in the Heritage Room in search of something entirely different, I came across a file I had forgotten about. It was labeled "James Berton Rhoads (alumnus)" and immediately caught my attention. Sometime about ten or eleven years ago in organizing boxes of miscellaneous stuff left by my predecessor, I put these documents related to Berton (the name he appears to use) together in this folder, labeled it, put it in my biographical file, and forgot about it. It turns out that Berton is the son of James, a nephew of the Rhoads sisters, and he was Archivist of the United States from 1968 until 1979. He attended Union College 1947-1948, but completed his bachelors and masters degrees at the University of California Berkeley. His career at the National Archives began in 1952.
In all of the excitement of connecting the various pieces of this talented and illustrious family's story, I have yet to discover what happened to Margaret, the question that started it all. But I now have the stories behind three of Union's golden cords. And a great lesson in the value of reading and collecting information widely. You never know when or how all of the pieces may come together.