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Our 125 Years: Mergers, Murals and Modern Dance

Art Historian Marie Frank Tells of UML's Always Strong and Steady Spirit

Assoc. Prof. Marie Frank literally wrote the book on UMass Lowell for The Campus History Series. We ask her about some of her impressions of the university's first 125 years.
Assoc. Prof Marie Frank, who literally wrote the book on the university for the Campus History Series, discusses some unique and little-known points in the university's 125-year history.

10/17/2019
By David Perry

As the university celebrates its 125th anniversary, Assoc. Prof. Marie Frank has provided some historical perspective about our roots, our legacy and our uniqueness as an institution. Frank, who coordinates the art history program, wrote the 2012 book “The University of Massachusetts” which draws on photo archives to honor the school’s past and present and preserve some of the collective memories of the university community. Frank is a member of the 125th Blue Ribbon Commission that is overseeing campus observances of the 125th anniversary.

Q. Was there one moment – a decision, a conversation, a person -- that shifted the university’s course more than any other?

A. One of the most important moments must have been when Daniel O’Leary and Martin Lydon first broached the idea of a merger between the two schools. If you look back, both Lowell State College and Lowell Technological Institute were well-established and had their own separate identities in the 1960s. Both were flourishing. And yet, the idea of combining those respective strengths took shape and ultimately became a reality in 1975 with the creation of the University of Lowell. Without that decision, the structure of the university might be very different today.

Q. It’s clear that so many things have changed, but are there aspects of the university that remain the same?
 
A. One aspect that struck me was the school spirit exhibited by the students from the earliest days. When I went back through the old photos from the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s, I came across school clubs, musical performances, theater productions and athletic victories. The students clearly threw themselves into their time on the two campuses, and that excitement became palpable. It is also reflected in their respective yearbooks. I think that school spirit has continued to this day. I gave a friend of mine who lives in Florida a UML T-shirt, and he said that every time he wore it, someone would stop him and ask if he was an alumnus, too! Clearly, our graduates continue to think fondly of their time here.
 
Q. Is there an underappreciated event or person in the university’s history?

A. I think we have done a very good job of highlighting some of the important individuals in the school’s history. The sign that was placed in the McGauvran Center after the building’s renovation, for example, really pinpoints the contributions of Mary McGauvran ’39 (former vice president of student affairs) and lets students today know who she was. Perhaps Clarence Weed deserves a bit more credit for his role in transforming the early Normal School into Lowell Teachers College. I think he was a person with an amazing amount of energy.

Sometimes we lose sight of the fact that excellence in education was always a goal of each institution. Images of classrooms or people from the early 20th century can lead us to think that methods or facilities were old-fashioned, but in fact, time and again, my investigations showed that each institution’s leaders always insisted on state-of-the-art labs or materials, or cutting-edge pedagogical methods. A high level of excellence is an essential part of our legacy and history.
 
Q. What is the oddest thing you’ve discovered about the university’s 125-year history?

A. I’ve found that many of the early teachers and administrators had the same character traits of teachers and administrators today. The faculty has a sincere belief in the significance of the work they do, the interest and energy to bring practitioners from the field into the classroom or, the other way around, arranging off-campus field trips, internships or other experiences to further a student’s exposure to different disciplines or career paths. For example, Marguerite Gourville, a faculty member in the 1930s, incorporated modern dance into her classes just as this art form began to draw national attention. Her students used this experience in class to investigate the rhythm and structure of Native American dance sequences. I don’t think that’s something people realize faculty and students were doing in the 1930s. And yet we have faculty now doing similar types of things for students; I’m always amazed at the announcements in UML News about events on campus or new initiatives by departments and programs. There is a lot of positive energy here.

Students have changed in ways we might expect, due to the changes in education and technology they have grown up with; everybody has a smartphone. But at the core, I still see a student who is direct and eager to learn. 

Q. Do you have a favorite artifact from the university’s history?

A. Without a doubt, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) murals in Coburn Hall are my favorite. When these murals went up in the mid-1930s, they were the pride and joy of the institution. And then, for reasons I still cannot uncover, by the 1970s they were covered with not one, but two, layers of oil-based paint – and then, on top of that, a curtain! By the 1990s, they were all but forgotten. And yet the subject matter is so appropriate for this institution – the role of education in the city of Lowell. I am so happy that this fall, they will be fully restored as part of the Coburn Hall renovation project.