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Sept. 29, 2010

Opperman Lecture will take audience back in time


Jim McLaird

MITCHELL — From cows in College Hall to the drop-kick heard around the world, one former professor has not only compiled a collection of history, pranks and people of Dakota Wesleyan – but has written the book on it.

Jim McLaird, DWU history professor emeritus and 1962 alumnus, will discuss writing and researching “The Dakota Wesleyan University Memory Book, 1885-2010,” and what it means to be an investigative historian during this year’s Opperman Lecture. His lecture, “Writing for Pleasure,” will begin at 11 a.m. Friday, Oct. 1, in the Sherman Center and is free and open to the public.

The Opperman Lecture series began 15 years ago with an endowment by Dwight Opperman, who attended DWU in 1947-48. He funded the lecture to bring distinguished alumni back to DWU to share their experiences with students.

McLaird will regale his audience with stories of history and research – only this time the lecture will be followed by a book signing, rather than a pop quiz.

Out of the last 52 years, he has spent 41 of them as either a student or employee of Dakota Wesleyan. When Lori Essig, vice president for university relations, asked McLaird to update a previous history book in honor of DWU’s 125th anniversary, he turned her down. He said he didn’t want to update the old story, but would rather research and write a new kind of history book – a “social history.”

“Alumni will enjoy it,” McLaird said. “When you talk to alumni about their college experience, almost always the first things to come up are the pranks they pulled, crazy stories and things that happened at that time … rarely do they talk about their academic experience. They want to remember the life they participated in.”

So the nearly two-year writing and editing process began. McLaird read every copy of the student newspaper the Phreno Cosmian, every Tumbleweed yearbook, and every book that he could find written by alumni. He also scoured the local newspapers for articles pertaining to DWU and practically turned the DWU archives into a second home.

The result is a 294-page, hardcover testament to 125 years of education, service and student life. Each chapter contains a narrative, sidebars, biographies and snippets describing a different decade.

When picking the topic for his Opperman Lecture it was a given that he would discuss writing and researching, having also written, “Calamity Jane: The Woman and the Legend” in 2005, and “Wild Bill Hickok & Calamity Jane: Deadwood Legends,” in 2008. “Calamity Jane” also won The Best Book Award from Westerners International in 2006.

He loves history and has a mind for puzzles. He describes historians as detectives, never taking information at face value, always asking questions.

This proved useful when McLaird started digging into popular DWU lore – such as a cow left in College Hall – which actually happened thanks to a tiff between two literary societies; or Mark Payne’s record-setting 63-yard drop kick which made headlines nationwide. The story, though, got a little exaggerated. McLaird found accounts listing the game as tied and Payne kicking the ball into the wind, winning the game with only moments left. The truth was, DWU was up 17-0, the kick was early in the second half and inclement weather was never mentioned. This sort of thing seems to tickle McLaird more than annoy. Getting to the truth is what matters.

“It was the first time I had ever written sidebars and biographies and snippets along with the narrative. It was a real learning experience. It’s more of a social history than a political or economic,” he said.

Writing and researching comes with its ups and downs, which McLaird said he would also be describing, but overall, writing the memory book was a satisfying experience that made it a pleasure to write.

Snippets from the book:

“Quite a number did not get in Friday evening before 10:30 from talking with the dairy maids, so were locked out.” – Mitchell Daily Republican, April 20, 1886

“On a certain day in the last part of October, every student came to chapel armed with a dime, two nickels or ten pennies, as the case might be, which they magnanimously presented to the librarian to buy the periodicals for the library. Now we have all the standard magazines on our shelves.” – Phreno Cosmian, November 1898

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