Tom Hanks once took something from Dawne Dewey — or did he?

‘Every person’s life story is worth preserving and reading about.’

Credit: Erin Pence

Credit: Erin Pence

Dawne Dewey has been safeguarding our history for decades.

She’s the head of Special Collections & Archives at Wright State University, home to the largest Wright Brothers Collection in the world as well as millions of records, documents and photographs.

On the eve of her retirement, Dewey offers an inspiring perspective on the region’s history.

“The one thing that has always struck me about Dayton’s history is that ordinary people, going about their lives, did some pretty extraordinary things.”

Our Daytonian of the Week says it best in her own words.

Credit: Lisa Powell

Credit: Lisa Powell

How long have you been the head of Special Collections & Archives at Wright State University? How did you become interested in this field? 

I started working at WSU in April of 1989. I became the head of the Archives in 1997. I will wrap up 31 years of service at the end of May. I grew up loving history. When I went to college, History and Anthropology were my chosen subjects. I was lucky enough to find the graduate program in Public History at WSU and a career in museums and archives.

If you had to choose one object in the collection you are most fascinated by, what would it be and why? 

That is a tough question. I like it all! There is one very special small autograph album in the Wright Brothers Collection that belonged to the Wright Brothers’ younger sister, Katharine. It is full of handwritten notes from her classmates and dates to 1882.

There is one entry in particular that has always spoken to me. “May your life be as you wish it. May you wish it as it is.” This a good reminder for me right now as I retire. Change is always challenging and sometimes scary, but being satisfied with life as it is, in that moment, is a gift.

What would you want people to know about the history of the Dayton region? 

Dayton has a remarkable history. It is the story of people who overcame adversity, people who were imaginative, creative, inventive and resilient. There are so many examples or stories of individuals, families and groups who stepped up to challenges and found solutions to problems. You might say, well every city has that, and I suppose they do. The one thing that has always struck me about Dayton’s history is that ordinary people, going about their lives, did some pretty extraordinary things. The Wright Brothers became world-famous when they showed the world what an airplane could do. But they were also hometown boys who walked the streets of Dayton, rode the streetcars, went for bicycle rides, played with their nephews and nieces, and just called Dayton their hometown. The ordinary people are the ones who do extraordinary things. We all have that potential in one way or another.

During your time at Wright State, who were some of the well-known people you enjoyed meeting? 

Amanda Wright Lane — Wright family ambassador and dear friend

David McCullough — A real gentlemen, passionate and interesting historian, and just genuine, a great storyteller.

Tom Hanks — “Call me Tom.” And when he leaned in to say goodbye at the end of his visit, he said “I took something from the archives and you have to figure out what it is.”

Erik Lindbergh — During Erik’s visit to the archives, he said “You just get to live in this history! It’s extraordinary!”

Contessa Maria Fede Caproni — daughter of Gianni Caproni who built the Caproni Bomber

Fernando Bothello — Brazilian aviator and businessman

Credit: Will Jones

Credit: Will Jones

How has the digital world changed the collection and preservation of the past? 

Technology has made it easy to communicate, but difficult to preserve all of what is being communicated. When I started in this field, we were using typewriters. We got our first desktop computers in 1989. The digital world has opened up so many opportunities for archives to share manuscript material online. It has opened up access to priceless materials that were difficult to see and study before. The same collection policies can be applied to digital content, but it certainly presents challenges in the way we store it, preserve it, and make it available for research. If we get an old floppy in a collection, or some other old format, we have to be able to open it up, check to see if it is still viable, transfer it to the newest, most dependable medium, and store it.

We are constantly adding more server space to our E-Archive (Electronic Archive). Staff now have the skills to handle digital materials. It is so different from handling old letters, diaries, photographs and all of the other physical traces of the past that we have in the archives. We also have to be able to make it available for study, whether online or in the reading room using specific equipment, like audio and video players, dedicated computer terminals for the public to use to listen or view or read the materials. People are communicating in very creative ways using technology and it makes it very difficult for archivists to collect it all. We also have a forensic workstation in the archives now, a special computer with all kinds of drives to be able to evaluate electronic content before it is placed on our servers. We had never heard of a forensic workstation when I was a grad student. I have always been thankful that the bulk of my career has been working with the physical manuscripts and not electronic content. Perhaps I am just “old” now and I like touching the actual diary or letter better. And even though there are challenges, technology has enabled archives to share rare collections worldwide. So many more people are able to see the evidence of history.

Credit: Chris Stewart

Credit: Chris Stewart

WSU is collecting donated diaries and journals people are keeping during the pandemic. Why is this important? 

I think a lot of people today don’t think their thoughts and experiences are important to preserve, but they are. Just like the diaries and letters and photographs from a hundred years ago that are in the archives, the traces we leave behind about what is happening today, what we are living through now, what we experience, what we think and feel, are important. Every person’s life story is worth preserving and reading about. It’s all history, whether it happened a long time ago or this morning. We are living through a time in history that is not an ordinary occurrence. Yes, it has happened before, such as when the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic killed thousands, but it is the first time it has happened to current generations.

Special Collections and Archives has always been proactive about collecting stories that tell us what is happening now, in our current lives. We can’t wait for some time in the future to collect this material. People need to write down what is happening now, reflect on how they feel about it and what they are experiencing. We plan to collect as much material as we can from a wide variety of audiences and ages and then place them in the archives. They will be made available for research and study.

People can help us now by being purposeful about recording this pandemic and how it is affecting them and then sending those reflections to us. It will help tremendously in capturing this monumental time in our history and how a global event affected each of us in a personal way. I’ve been reading stories from Dayton papers in 1918 talking about the Spanish flu epidemic and also diaries and letters of people who wrote about the flu and its impact. What they experienced over a hundred years ago sounds familiar to what we are experiencing now. If, several decades from now, people can learn from the diaries, photographs, social media posts, etc. of what people went through now, it will help inform how we react when this happens again. It gives us a sense of community and connection to the past, a shared experience that helps define who we are. It can help us shape future policy, attitudes, and reactions to national events that affect us locally.

You will soon retire. What are you looking forward to and what will you miss most about your job? 

I am looking forward to reading books that don’t have anything to do with management or administration. I want to spend time reading history that I want to read. I want to keep in touch with all of the many friends I have made through the job and continue to listen to their stories. I want to get outside more, hike, ride my bike, write a book, play with my six grandchildren, introduce them to history and take them on trips to historic sites. My husband, Sam, and I want to jump in the car and head out to see places in the U.S. we’ve never been to.

The best part of my job, the part I will miss the most, is meeting people, ordinary people and extraordinary people, who have done or lived through something remarkable. I love touching the evidence of the past, reading letters, diaries, looking at photographs and old movies, that reveal history. I love sharing it with others, helping them get excited about it, get connected to past generations. I will miss the students at Wright State, teaching, and listening to their big dreams for the future. I will also miss the wonderful and dedicated staff and colleagues who I have had the privilege of working with all these years.

In your opinion, what makes the Miami Valley region such a special place to live and work? 

There are so many opportunities to engage with a wide variety of people. Dayton has a great arts community and plenty of museums and archives. There are festivals, parks, trails, and outdoor fun. There are great educational institutions and opportunities to learn new things. And the history of our town and the valley is something that we can all be proud of, something that binds us all together, something that gives us a sense of place. I had the opportunity to travel to other countries as part of my job at Wright State. I loved seeing and learning about the history of faraway places, but I was always glad to come home.

Additional Note 

When I graduated with my degrees in History and Anthropology, I had no idea where my education would take me. I found the perfect place to put it to work. Working in the archives at WSU gave me opportunities I never dreamed of. I have been an archivist, historian, world traveler, adjunct faculty member, teacher, speaker, board member, community partner, director of a graduate program, and best of all, met the most amazing people who have become lifelong friends. I have had the privilege of working with people who share the same passion for history that I do. Going to work in the Archives every day was fun and interesting. Can’t ask for anything more than that.

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