By Lynn Vollbrecht'06
They cover the universal topics of college days: parties, study, travel, friendships, gossip. Though the spines on the volumes creak when opened, and the slightly floral, musty smell of the pages hint at their age, the diaries of former college trustee and alumna Laura Aldrich Neese (1912) could have been written by a contemporary college student. By turns chatty and reflective, to hear her tell it, each party was the best party, each suitor more charming than the next, and her relationship with her parents familiar to anyone leaving the nest: “Daddy just generally disgruntled with me for being heedless and contrary,” she writes in one entry.
What sets the diaries apart, though, is not their timelessness. It’s their illustrations. Every few pages, Neese’s observations and musings about life as a Beloit College student at the turn of the century are illustrated with vivid watercolors.
“Hers is the first [diary] I’ve ever seen that’s beautiful art. She poured her heart into it,” says College Archivist Fred Burwell’86. “I’m sure there are other illustrated diaries out there, but they’re really rare.” Some of the volumes are already digitally scanned and searchable as part of Beloit’s digital collections at http://www.beloit.edu/bcdc/neese.
The diaries, which came to Beloit in 2012—exactly 100 years after Neese graduated—have been a powerful draw for students, especially the members of Beloit sorority Theta Pi Gamma, to which Neese herself belonged. “I get a lot of students asking “Can we see the diaries?” They’re fascinated by them,” Burwell says, and rightly so. Neese’s diaries were the gift of Jane Petit-Moore’63, Neese’s granddaughter and the daughter of longtime college trustee Harry Moore.
One student who has become particularly well-acquainted with the diaries is Amara Pugens’13, of Brookfield, Wis., who transcribed them as a project for her museum studies minor and created a display for the Morse Library.
“The diaries are beautiful,” Pugens says. “I really wanted to display these diaries and have people know about them.”
While Neese’s artwork opens a window on Beloit’s past, some of her most memorable illustrations are of European tours, created while she sailed to and from Europe. She passed the time at sea painting on-deck scenes and portraits of other passengers. While countryside, she captured the colorful landscapes and local dress.
The diaries can stand alone for the lovely artwork on their pages, but their true value to the college goes beyond that.
“Diaries and other primary source material act as stepping stones to intellectual inquiry,” College Archivist Fred Burwell’86 says. “Students engage with history by forging personal connections with people and places from long ago, providing them with a deeper understanding of particular time periods and mindsets, much in the way generations of young people learn about the Holocaust from Anne Frank’s diary.”
Diaries, he says, are like a form of time travel. “These still-vibrant traces of the past bring students closer to history with an immediacy that secondary sources rarely achieve.”
If the Neese name sounds familiar, it’s probably because the family has long ties to Beloit College and to the city’s industrial past. Laura, the daughter of a Beloit Corporation founder, served on the college board of trustees from 1941-1960. Her husband, Elbert, eventually chaired the board of the Beloit Corporation. Together, the two were quiet philanthropists, whose generosity is still reflected in the Wright Museum of Art’s Neese Gallery, the Neese Performing Arts Complex, a scholarship program, and an economics department professorship. Many of their college contributions revolved around the arts, such as the funding of the Laura Aldrich Neese Collection of Contemporary Art in the 1940s, which added substantially to the teaching resources of Beloit’s art department.