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Spring 2024

Tales From the Vault

Step into Northwestern University Archives with historian Kevin Leonard. By Kingsley Day

Photography: Shane Collins; Videography: Jude Appleby

University Archives is home to documents, artifacts and mementos that showcase the rich history of Northwestern and its community, “items that will help people better understand the University we love,” says University Historian Kevin Leonard ’77, ’82 MA. The collections span 25,000 linear feet and include everything from a limited-edition Northwestern University Barbie to a real taxidermized wildcat. “If you arranged the boxes end-to-end,” says Leonard, “they would reach nearly 5 miles.” We asked Leonard, a longtime archivist for the University and a master raconteur, to name his most-treasured artifacts — and share the stories behind them.


SpyglassOne of the Archives’ oldest objects is a spyglass used by 19th-century explorers Robert Kennicott and Henry M. Bannister, an 1863 graduate of Northwestern. Kennicott and Bannister were part of a team that explored Alaska in the mid-1860s to investigate the feasibility of running a telegraph cable from North America to Europe by way of Alaska, the Bering Strait and Siberia. Although the idea was ultimately abandoned, the explorers reported their findings to then–Secretary of State William Seward. “The indirect result of their work,” says Leonard, “was the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867” — an acquisition derided at the time as “Seward’s Folly.”

The explorers’ spyglass and their journals — with exquisite handwriting and intricate drawings of boats and sled dog trains — from their Alaskan travels were passed down through Bannister’s family until James Alton James, a longtime Northwestern history professor (1897–1935), contacted the descendants and acquired the artifacts for the University. The wealth of materials that James collected over his lifetime became the genesis of University Archives. “His plan late in his career was to write a history of Northwestern,” says Leonard. “He never realized that dream as a publication, but he is the person who began Northwestern’s archival program, so we owe him a great debt of gratitude.”


Type This Up, Quick!

Georgie Anne Geyer's typewriter cover with red lipstick sticker on topGeorgie Anne “Gee Gee” Geyer ’56, ’93 H achieved fame as a Chicago Daily News foreign correspondent and a nationally syndicated columnist. “This is the portable typewriter that she carried with her on her travels,” says Leonard. “It’s relatively compact, something you could put under your feet on an airplane. What’s funny is the sticker on the outside of the case — bright red lips — because she wore bright, fire engine–red lipstick as part of her signature look.” 

The typewriter and its case accompanied Geyer all over the world, including to Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America. She interviewed a who’s who of 1980s and ’90s geopolitics: Iraqi president Saddam Hussein; Cuban president Fidel Castro; Palestinian political leader Yasser Arafat; the Ayatollah Khomeini, the supreme leader of Iran; Argentine president Juan Perón; and Libyan political leader Moammar Gadhafi.


Archives also holds the U.S. Army–issued military blouse Geyer wore while reporting in Vietnam, along with a large collection of her personal papers.

“Gee Gee Geyer was a delightful woman,” recalls Leonard, “and it was a great honor to become her friend.” On a 1968 Vietnam trip, Geyer met Chicago Cubs star Ernie Banks, who was there entertaining the troops, and they became lifelong friends. Although she eventually relocated to Washington, D.C., Geyer returned regularly to Chicago, where she would host gatherings at the Drake Hotel. On one such occasion, she invited both Leonard and Banks. “I had grown up a Cubs fan, and she knew it would be fun for me to meet him,” says Leonard. “She was a very generous soul who looked out for her pals.”

The Ultimate Wildcat

Football trophyWhen Leonard started collecting materials on behalf of the Archives, “I made a list of people whose materials I’d really like to get,” he says. “Otto Graham was at the top of that list.”

Unquestionably the greatest athlete in Northwestern history, Graham ’44 came to the University from Waukegan, Ill., on a basketball scholarship. “During his freshman year, he was playing intramural football over at Long Field,” says Leonard. “The story goes that he was discovered by one of the football coaches. And so Otto came out for football as a sophomore. He was outstanding from his first game, ultimately winning All-American honors in both basketball and football. He was also a very fine outfielder on the Northwestern baseball team and even Northwestern’s intramural ping-pong champion.

“After leaving Northwestern to serve in the U.S. Navy during World War II, he played one season of professional basketball, and his team [the National Basketball League’s Rochester Royals] won the championship [1945–46] in a precursor to today’s NBA. Then, as quarterback for the Cleveland Browns, he became one of the all-time greats in professional football. Graham kept track of his accomplishments in scrapbook form, and his family generously gave a large collection of those scrapbooks to Archives.” The holdings also include films, sound recordings and other objects and records associated with Graham’s career, including the 1943 Chicago Tribune Silver Football, awarded to the Big Ten’s best player. 

A 360 degree image of the Northwestern Wheaties Box

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The Queen of Fresh Prince

Glamour magazine coverBest known as Aunt Vivian on the 1990s TV series The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Daphne Maxwell Reid ’70 has had a prolific, successful career in TV and film. But what people might not know, Leonard says, is that she is incredibly multitalented and broke significant early barriers — and luckily, “we’ve been able to document all facets of her career, from a very young age to the present.”

Maxwell Reid became the University’s first Black homecoming queen in 1967 and months later she joined the cohort of Black students who occupied the Northwestern Bursar’s Office in 1968. She began working as a fashion model while still a student and was the first Black professional model featured on the cover of Glamour in 1969. Maxwell Reid designed and sewed much of her own clothing for auditions and worked with the McCall Pattern Company to create the Daphne Maxwell Reid Collection. She is also a photographer who has published several photo collections.

“We have scripts, awards and other artifacts from her television career,” Leonard says, as well as original clothing that she created for her McCall’s line and her photography books, calendars and cookbooks. “We even have her baby book!”


A 360 degree image of the Northwestern University Barbie.

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Soap Opera Legend

Emmy awardCreator of the long-running daytime series All My Children, Agnes Nixon ’44 was one of the most successful writer-producers in the history of soap opera television. Archives holds a large collection of her personal papers and professional records.

“Agnes came here in the 1940s to study theater,” says Leonard. “When she looked around at her theater cohort at the time — including Patricia Neal ’47, ’94 H, Charlton Heston ’45 and others who would go on to successful movie careers — she thought, ‘Maybe I should find some other path.’ So, she became a writer.”

While a student, Nixon wrote a semiautobiographical radio play that channeled her grief about losing her fiancé in World War II. Now a treasured archival artifact, the script for No Flags Flying led to a job writing for serial broadcast pioneer Irna Phillips, which in turn led to Nixon’s long and illustrious TV writing career. In 2010 Nixon won the Daytime Emmy Award for Lifetime Achievement (below center), and when she returned to campus four years later to receive an Alumni Merit Award, she brought Leonard to the ceremony as her plus-one.

“When she arrived and got out of her car, she handed me that Emmy,” he recalls. “I was too timid to put it down the whole night, so people thought I was an Emmy winner and kept coming up to congratulate me.” Her legacy lives on through Northwestern’s Agnes Nixon Playwriting Awards, established in 1981.

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What the Dawk Is That?

Among the more unusual objects in the Archives is this motorized, foot-tapping, silent protest doll — a Dawk — as featured on The Lloyd Thaxton Show, a 1960s nationally syndicated TV program promoting rock, pop and R&B music. “Lloyd Thaxton ’50 had served in the U.S. Navy at the end of World War II and came here on the GI Bill,” says Leonard. “He had a huge, antic personality and became a radio disc jockey.” In addition to his eventual career as a TV host, he co-founded Tiger Beat, a teen magazine that ran for more than 50 years, starting in 1965. When his widow agreed to place Thaxton’s archival records at Northwestern, she also donated his military-issued grave marker. “I visited her home, and she pointed to this grave marker in her yard and told me that Lloyd wanted to be buried under his favorite tree,” Leonard recalls. “After pausing to let that sink in for a minute, she said, ‘But he’s not buried there.’ He was buried in a traditional cemetery, so she had put his grave marker under the tree instead. It’s a little unusual as an archival item, but it’s a future display item and a way of paying tribute to Thaxton and his service to the nation.”

Kingsley Day is a freelance writer and editor and the former lead publications editor in Northwestern’s Office of Global Marketing and Communications.

Step further into Northwestern University Archives

A metal circus elephant sculpture
If you had sold the most tickets to the Northwestern Circus, you could have won this decorative elephant as a prize. All photos by Shane Collins.
Henry Bannister's journal
The journals of 19th-century explorers Robert Kennicott and Henry M. Bannister. Bannister was an 1863 graduate of Northwestern.
Georgie Anne Geyer's Chicago Daily News Shirt hanging on a hangar
U.S. Army–issued military blouse that foreign correspondent Georgie Anne “Gee Gee” Geyer ’56, ’93 H wore while reporting in Vietnam.
Lloyd Thaxton's grave marker
When his widow agreed to place Lloyd Thaxton’s archival records at Northwestern, she also donated his military-issued grave marker.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air script that is a red-binded book.
A collection of scripts from the 1990s TV series The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which starred Daphne Maxwell Reid ’70 as Aunt Vivian.
3 dresses hanging on hangars.
Daphne Maxwell Reid ’70 designed and sewed much of her own clothing for auditions and worked with the McCall Pattern Company.
Otto Graham's scrapbook cover
Otto Graham ’44 tracked his athletic accomplishments in scrapbook form, and Graham’s family gave many of those scrapbooks to Archives.
Interior of Otto Graham's scrapbook showing news clippings.
Otto Graham’s scrapbooks include news clippings that highlight his Wildcat football career.
A close up shot of Agnes Nixon's Emmy.
In 2010 Agnes Nixon ’44 won the Daytime Emmy Award for Lifetime Achievement. She created the iconic soap operas All My Children and One Life to Live.
Northwestern Barbie posed out of the box
In 1996, Mattel produced a Northwestern cheerleader Barbie as part of its series of university Barbies.

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Reader Responses

  • Many thanks for sharing the wonders of the Northwestern University Archives. Hoping to see more in the near future.

    Judith Ellen Mayzel Chicago, via Northwestern Magazine

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