Beloit College is known as the ‘Harvard of the Midwest.’ It’s a place students come to learn and for Fred Burwell, it’s a place he never left. It’s not a mystery why he never left. Burwell says, “It’s never dull in the sense you’re always going to find something new. There are mysteries I’m still trying to solve after 30 years.” Finding something new in something old is Burwell’s job as the Beloit College Archivist.
It’s a journey that started at the library back in the ‘80s during his college days. Burwell describes it this way, “I walked into this space where there were piles, and piles of photographs, boxes of stuff higgledy, piggledy on shelves.” As Burwell grew older, the job of organizing chaos in the college archive never grew old. Today he knows more about Beloit College than probably anyone.
Some of his treasures include a hand-signed letter by Helen Keller. There is also Beloit College’s connection to the Indiana Jones movies based on Beloit Alum Roy Chapman Andrews, class of 1906. The volume of work Burwell handles is limitless. The piles of records, documents, and memorabilia are never ending. Burwell says, “I’ve learned to live with piles everywhere. Just the nature of the beast and some people will joke that it’s job security.”
It’s a job that still excites Burwell even after all these years. The thing he discovered early on was his love for working with students. To see that light bulb go off over their head when they are suddenly turned on to history. Burwell says, “You get some students who say they don’t like history. I say what sport do you play? Baseball?” And that’s when Burwell pulls out the picture of the 1898 Beloit College Baseball Team. It’s a team that had some fascinating characters like Ginger Beaumont who went on to be the first batter in the first World Series.
Connecting future generations to history is key to Burwell’s work. He affectionately calls himself the “campus pack rat.” Something that seems mundane and recyclable now, he can see that it could be valuable in 50 years or more, or less. He admits he comes from a family of collectors and was doing archiving before he even knew the meaning of the word. Burwell says, “I tend to want to tell stories. I like stories and archives are full of them.”