LR Brichford

From left, University of Illinois archivists William Maher, Maynard Brichford and Winton Solberg, joined by presenter John Wilkin, vice chancellor for academic affairs, pose with their Chancellor's Medallions after the awards ceremony June 28, 2017, at the UI Library in Urbana.

Listen to this article

URBANA — When Maynard Brichford arrived on the scene, the history of the University of Illinois was scattered in boxes and files across campus.

The UI’s first archivist dug through 100 years of records to chronicle the university’s past and make it available for future generations.

Mr. Brichford, who died Saturday at age 93, essentially created the University Archives and made it a destination for records from notable authors, scientists and alumni.

“He was humble, but what he accomplished was really monumental,” said current University Archivist William Maher, who worked as Mr. Brichford’s “apprentice” for 18 years.

Mr. Brichford was hired as the UI’s first full-time archivist in September 1963, a job he would hold for 32 years.

Until that point, records were stored in attics and basements from Lincoln Hall to the UI Library to Turner Hall, Maher said.

UI officials had made efforts to create a central repository around the school’s 50th anniversary in 1917, but two world wars and the Depression delayed action for several decades, he said. In preparation for the UI centennial celebration in 1967, a campus committee decided to hire someone to do it.

Brichford came with strong credentials, having worked at the Wisconsin State Historical Society and the state of Illinois. He was trained by Margaret Cross Norton, Illinois’ first archivist and a legend in the field; the Illinois State Archives building in Springfield is named in her honor, partially through Mr. Brichford’s efforts, Maher said.

With “bare bones support” from the university, Mr. Brichford quickly created an easy-to-use archival system open to historians, researchers and the public, Maher said.

In the course of two or three years, he also landed several important collections — from the American Library Association, the Stewart S. Howe Collection on fraternities and sororities, and Avery Brundage, the influential and controversial president of the U.S. Olympic Committee (1928-53) and the International Olympic Committee (1952-72).

“Maynard saw that the scope of the archives needed to be more than records of university offices. It also needed to be records of prominent alumni who had significant careers,” Maher said.

Mr. Brichford negotiated a unique arrangement with the American Library Association, which agreed to pay the UI to hold its records and make them accessible to the public.

Howe ran businesses that provided support services for student organizations and left his collection to the UI when he died, along with money to endow the Student Life and Culture Archives.

Brundage, a UI track athlete who competed in the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, kept meticulous records of his time heading the Olympic committees. Other institutions wanted the collection, and Brundage had his own ideas about creating a separate foundation, but he ultimately chose the UI. It’s still used regularly for research on sports and politics and culture, Maher said.

Mr. Brichford also set in motion the acquisition of papers from famed New York Times columnist and UI alumnus Scotty Reston, among others.

And he established a systematic process for reviewing material to determine “what’s worth keeping for enduring value and what’s not,” Maher said.

“Archivists are primarily concerned with the future. That really was his vision,” Maher said. “The reason to keep this stuff isn’t because it’s old or pretty or cool. It’s because somebody’s going to want to use it,” to understand the past and survive the future.

Mentor to many

Maher was a history student at Washington University when he became interested in archive work and asked a colleague where he should go to learn more. She relayed advice from her mentor, the archivist of the Smithsonian Institution: There’s no one better than Maynard Brichford.

Maher took a class with Mr. Brichford, enjoying his intellect, sharp observations and dry sense of humor, and later took a job at the UI Archives.

At that time, Mr. Brichford was reaching the peak of his career, leading the Society of American Archivists and bringing archive practices from Europe to his American colleagues, Maher said. He also served on national committees dealing with how to archive science and technology and computerize records into easily searchable databases.

Mr. Brichford had a sharp eye for detail and an “uncanny” ability to pick up a 10-page report and immediately find a typo, Maher said.

He could be a man of few words, especially when he was interviewed. You had to “listen for the little things, the few words that he said when he was commenting on your work. There was a lot behind them,” Maher said.

In 2017, Mr. Brichford was recognized with the Chancellor’s Medallion along with Maher and Professor Winton Solberg, the UI’s unofficial historian.

Like any self-respecting archivist, Mr. Brichford was a collector — of baseball cards, used books and old maps, including an entire file drawer of superseded highway maps.

“He saw value in the past,” Maher said.

On his daily bike rides into work on his old Schwinn, Mr. Brichford would take note of every license plate he saw and add up those states’ electoral votes, Maher said.

Beloved ‘grand-dude’

A native of northern Ohio, Mr. Brichford grew up listening to radio broadcasts of his beloved Cleveland Indians and remained a loyal fan. He later adopted the Chicago Cubs, unfailingly keeping score at every game, Maher said.

He played softball as an adult and coached girls’ teams for the Urbana Park District “when organized sports for girls were just beginning,” said his daughter, Sarah Brichford.

“I will say that I enjoyed having an archivist for a father as we visited many historic sites on our family trips,” as well as national parks and forests, she said.

His grandchildren found him entertaining and called him “grand-dude.”

“As a father and grandfather, he had a great tolerance for the chaos that comes with lively children,” said his son, Charles Brichford. “I can remember Christmases with five, six or more grandchildren circulating from room to room in my parents house in Urbana.”

Mr. Brichford always kept a diary and a few years ago shared the entries he made when he met his wife, Jane. “It did not take him long to decide that she was the one,” his son said.

He attended Hiram College in northern Ohio, finishing his degree after serving in the Navy in World War II, and later earned a master’s in history from the University of Wisconsin. He served on the board for the University YMCA, volunteered at the First United Methodist Church in Urbana and delivered Meals on Wheels with his wife.

Reporter/Columnist

Julie Wurth is a reporter covering the University of Illinois at The News-Gazette. Her email is jwurth@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@jawurth).