Historical Spirit | Media | Chicago Reader

News & Politics » Media

Historical Spirit

by

comment

By Michael Miner

Historical Spirit

Improper relationships are often the strongest. Illinois' government and the private Illinois State Historical Society forged a dubious--perhaps even illicit--union in 1903, and it lasted nearly a century.

This year they called it quits. During the breakup, the bickering over offspring--the quarterly Illinois Historical Journal--almost landed the two sides in court. Now each side publishes a quarterly of its own, and the Illinois Historical Journal, as such, no longer exists.

But when times were good they were very good. The president of the state historical society, Dr. Robert McColley, a retired University of Illinois historian, looks back warmly on the old partnership, making it sound a lot like an elegant scam. "In olden days," he says, "the state, because it serves the public, could not copyright its publications. Furthermore, the Illinois Historical Library, as a state library, could not hide its money anywhere. So the society could hide the library's money from the state treasurer. And the historical librarian was always director of the society. The [society's] legally established board of directors--with de jure control of the money--would never do anything against the will of the state librarian."

In other words, the society was a front that could shelter money intended for the historical library from those factions of government that would seize it to spend on schools or roads.

Founded in 1899, the historical society was given the privilege by a 1903 state law of being housed and staffed by the Illinois State Historical Library. The relationship couldn't have been cozier. Through the years, the director of the historical library doubled as state historian and tripled as executive secretary of the historical society. For decades he also edited the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, a membership perk that the library published, though the historical society held the copyright. The historical society provided the state historian with troops; at his pleasure, it ran various useful programs.

When the historical library was absorbed by the new Illinois Historic Preservation Agency in 1985, the historical society became that state agency's rent-free tenant. Says McColley, "If defenders of the IHPA want to say state employees always ran the society but pretended to be society members until 15 years ago--I couldn't honestly argue with that."

Eventually this pretense lost its usefulness. Changes in state law allowed the state to copyright and the historical library to maintain separate accounts. In 1984 the historical library unilaterally renamed the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society the Illinois Historical Journal. That was a shot across the historical society's bow, and when the IHPA, an energetic new bureaucracy, was launched a year later, the handwriting on the wall was unmistakable. "Most of us found we had less and less to do as a society unless we developed programs of our own," says McColley, "because their programs were more and more run by bureaucrats who weren't members of the Illinois Historical Society in any active sense."

The 90s brought two watersheds. Like directors of the historical library before him, the director of the new Illinois Historic Preservation Agency was also state historian and executive director of the historical society. When the IHPA director's job opened up in 1991, the historical society waged a campaign for Duane Elbert, an Eastern Illinois University historian. Instead, IHPA trustees gave the job to acting director Susan Mogerman, a former Jim Thompson press aide with no credentials as a historian. "She assumed we'd elect her executive director of the Illinois State Historical Society," says McColley. But the rebellious body refused.

Mogerman is still director of IHPA, and she tells me McColley's version of history is news to her. "The society has a way of making presumptions without asking," she says. "I never assumed that, not for one second. I never wanted to be. I didn't have time to be."

At any rate, she wasn't. "Mogerman did something which was, I think, well intended," McColley continues. She appointed Elbert state historian, and the historical society then elected him its executive director. But by all accounts, the rising tide of rancor made a fiasco of his administration. "Those of us who were directors kept wanting him to follow our agenda," says McColley. "Mogerman wanted him to follow her agenda. And Duane claimed he had an agenda of his own. After a year of this he had the good sense to quit. I must say we weren't kind to Duane during that year."

Then there was the disputed will of King V. Hostick. A former director of the historical society, Hostick was a Springfield collector of Lincolniana who'd acquired an estate worth nearly $3 million by the time he died in 1993. Both the historical society and IHPA coveted this fortune. Mogerman says Hostick's will was "very poorly written" and unclear. McColley says the will--written back in 1970--made it crystal clear that he'd "assigned the directors of the society the last word on what to do with the money." But, McColley continues, "so friendly are the courts around Springfield that judges were willing to entertain the argument that if Hostick had been alive he'd have meant that money to go to the state historical library, because the society in those days was mainly a place to hide money so the general fund wouldn't get it.

"Besides," he says, continuing to make the opposing argument, "what does the historical society need money for? It needs money for its full-time employees, but until recently the state paid them. For programs and housing, but until 1996 the state provided housing. The programs were society sponsored--and also sponsored by the state historical library."

In the end the two camps split Hostick's estate down the middle. Even half a loaf was serious money to the feisty historical society, which now could afford to assert some serious independence. Its headquarters had been 250 square feet of office space in the old Springfield railroad station the IHPA called home, but in 1996 a renovation forced the society to rent space temporarily. It never returned. "Our new place was more spacious and our name was on the door," says McColley. "We liked that."

The arrangement concerning the Illinois Historical Journal had by then become intolerable to both sides. The historical society was distributing the quarterly to its members but had no control over its content. And, as state auditors had been complaining for decades, the IHPA was spending state money to benefit a private organization by publishing a magazine it didn't even hold the copyright to. "They asked us sweetly if they could share the copyright," says McColley.

Instead of saying yes, the society pulled a fast one: in August of last year it quietly registered the trademark "Illinois Historical Journal" with the secretary of state. "It may have been mean on our part," McColley allows. "The Illinois Historical Preservation Agency was now running it 100 percent. They were doing a fairly decent job, but they couldn't get it through their heads we ought to have some input into how things were done. When they found out we'd registered the trademark they declared, 'We consider our cooperation at an end until you withdraw the application for a trademark.' By this time we were absolutely sure that withdrawing our trademark, allowing them to register the trademark, and sharing the copyright meant we'd lose our last shred of even symbolic power."

Julie Cellini, chairman of IHPA, notified McColley last July that her trustees intended to deal with the "trademark matter...in a clear, honest and forthright manner." IHPA had already "taken steps" to one-up his state-registered trademark by applying for a federal trademark, she wrote. Furthermore, "beginning with the next issue of the Journal, the Agency will register the copyright in its name."

The response was a stern letter from the historical society's attorney to IHPA's chief counsel that warned, Don't try it. If you do: (1) "The next issue will not be distributed to the members of the ISHS." (2) "The ISHS will publish the Illinois Historical Journal through other sources." And (3) "Should the IHPA attempt to distribute an issue of the Illinois Historical Journal without the consent of the ISHS...litigation will ensue immediately."

In last summer's issue of the historical society's newsletter, the "Dispatch," McColley reviewed the battle. "It was pleasant in olden times, having State employees do most of the hard work for ISHS, while Illinois taxpayers paid the bill," he admitted. But those times were over. So the historical society had decided to dust off the old title "Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society" and launch its own journal. "We hope our members will welcome this as a step to maturity and independence."

The "Dispatch" announcement came as news not only to the historical society's membership but to the IHPA. In that case, IHPA trustees promptly decided, we'll publish one too.

So there we are. McColley just finished editing the first issue of his new quarterly, which will assert a century of continuity by being numbered where the late Illinois Historical Journal left off. Meanwhile, IHPA is about to publish volume one, issue two, of the Journal of Illinois History--a brand-new quarterly created by the Illinois Historical Journal's old staff.

That quarterly's circulation was under 3,000. Is there room in Illinois for two quarterlies? I ask McColley. "I think that if Minnesota can support one, we can support two," he says. "But the fact we can doesn't mean we will."

"I think everyone will fare well," says Mogerman. "I think this all made sense historically"--by "this all" she means the relationship between the state and the historical society. "But this is a group that's been supporting another group for 100 years, and it's not illogical or unreasonable that it should want its own identity. I truly believe that once the society is on its own and the lines aren't fuzzy anymore, it's an opportunity for them to thrive."

To thrive or to get back at the state? "There are members of our board," says McColley, "who really believe we should go to the legislature and complain that this state agency is empire building, that these people are taking over the functions of what used to be a voluntary state society. Then there are people who love the age of big government, and they see government as the solution to problems, including scholarship.

"In between are those who say 'Let them go their way. We'll compete and see what happens.' They think it is really benign what happened, even if some of us got our feathers ruffled along the way. I don't have much use for the big-government people. But between the leave-them-alone and the let's-fight-some-more people, I'm kind of torn."

News Bites

Somebody I tried and failed to reach while I was preparing this week's lead story is Duane Elbert, the former Illinois state historian. I'd been told he might be living in Charleston, Illinois, so I dialed 411 and gave the operator the name of the town and then the name of my party. After that the call was all automatic. A metallic voice soon rattled off ten numbers, the first three constituting an area code I didn't recognize. Then I was given the opportunity--which doesn't always come when you dial information--to say "yes" for additional assistance.

Could you spell the name of the person whose number I just got? I asked the operator. She spelled "Elbert." And the first name? "Chester," she said. I wanted Duane, I said. "In Charleston, Missouri?" she said. No, in Charleston, Illinois.

The operator had punched in the wrong town, and then the computer had decided, as it's programmed to do, that pretty close was good enough. This happens all the time with 411. Ask for a corporate headquarters in midtown Manhattan and you find yourself calling a company warehouse on the waterfront. You can always get your money back. All you need to do is call Ameritech, so you don't pay for the information call that got you the wrong number, and then call your long-distance carrier, so you don't pay for the wrong number itself. But you might not be willing to take the rest of the afternoon off to pursue justice. A better reporter than I should calculate how many millions of dollars in revenues the telephone companies are collecting for wrong numbers the companies themselves are responsible for.

False to history, true to myth: "The ball that dribbled through former Boston first baseman Bill Buckner's legs and turned around the 1986 World Series recently went for $93,000 to actor Charlie Sheen at an auction," wrote Steve Rosenbloom in the Tribune on November 29.

"Especially putrid for onetime Red Sox fans such as myself will be the replay of the 1986 World Series game in which Bill Buckner failed to field a ground ball, a play that would have won the series for the Sox, who instead lost it to the Mets," wrote Steve Johnson in the Tribune on November 28. When Johnson watches that replay he'll discover the score was tied when Buckner fumbled.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Robert McColley photo by Davic Ricks; misc. book covers; Susan Mogerman uncredited photo.

Add a comment