Geologic History Intersects the Modern Era

October 25, 2018

"I suddenly had more questions than answers, and realized I needed help."

Ben Bowers ’20 enjoys uncovering history. As a geology major, he explores the history of the planet over the past four-plus billion years; as a narrative journalism student, he looks at stories on a more human time scale. An unusual assignment by Denison Professor Erik Klemetti brought Bowers’ interests together in a most unexpected way.

“Professor Klemetti wanted a student to see what discoveries could be made by digging through the materials in the attic of Olin,” said Bowers. “Being an amateur genealogist, aspiring archivist, and general fan of history, I was all in.”

The attic of Olin Science Hall holds a number of surprises. Among them is an article, written in 1979 by Professor Richard Mahard, that details the history of Denison’s Geology & Geography Department, as it was then known. “After reading that article, Professor Mahard immediately became a point of interest in my research. I wanted to know more about the man who had taught at Denison for nearly 40 years and whose picture is displayed on the wall in Olin,” said Bowers, who spent the summer of 2018 as a research scholar sifting through boxes of documents and chasing investigation leads. Bowers also hit a lot of dead ends. He couldn’t find much evidence of Mahard’s long career in the materials. Out of the dozens of boxes, only a few contained documents that mentioned him in any meaningful way. However, Bowers did find one artifact that led him to a new source.

In one of the boxes, nestled between newspaper clippings and handouts from his classes, was a page cut from a photo album. Pasted onto this piece of cardboard were black and white photographs of a man pulling a cart, Mt. Fuji, a destroyed city, a blurry General MacArthur, and a young Professor Mahard. And stuck to this sheet was a sticky note that read, in part, “Tokyo scenes Jan 1, 1946, until May 15, 1946, in Army.” “I suddenly had more questions than answers and realized I needed help. After receiving some advice from a volunteer during a visit to the Granville Historical Society Museum, I reached out to the Historical Society. That’s when I hit the information jackpot,” said Bowers.

In their collection, the Historical Society possesses what appears to be every letter Mahard wrote home to his wife, Marian, and to his parents during his time in the Army. In addition, there is a plethora of related correspondence with other figures from Denison, and documents associated with Mahard’s draft and discharge from the Army.

Bowers also found help closer to home, at Doane Library. “Sasha Griffin, one of Denison’s archivists, showed me how to use Omeka software to create an online exhibit of Professor Mahard’s story for the Denison Archives website,” he said. “I spent a crazy couple weeks of writing, editing, and formatting an exhibit that tells his story.”

“In the end, I not only have an interesting story, but also a greater appreciation for the department’s history, an even stronger desire to pursue archival work after graduation, and the satisfaction that more people will hopefully learn even just a little bit about this esteemed professor who has done so much for the Geoscience Department and for Denison.”

View the digital exhibit

Ben was able to make a unique connection between geology and narrative journalism because of faculty that collaborate with each other to support student inquiry. Thank you for supporting Denison faculty and students through the UnlockIng Potential campaign.