John Cumming

Introduction

Of all the things John Cumming enjoyed doing, collecting, printing, and writing were his three greatest loves.  Although his path to the Clarke took many years to complete, once he arrived John knew he had found his place.  John once enthused that coming to the Clarke each morning was like having Christmas every day.  He loved the things that serving as the Clarke’s director allowed him to do.  He also loved the unfolding story of the library.  He told a colleague that he could never commit suicide; he wanted to be able “to read the next chapter.”  Although John is no longer with us to share that next chapter, it is appropriate that we share with others the many chapters of his life.

Biography

John Cumming is not a native son of Michigan.  Born in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts in 1915, he grew up in nearby Worcester.  As a boy John developed a love for books.  His mother was an avid reader who passed the enthusiasm on to her child.  When a job as an office boy gave John a bit of money he frequently spent it in Boston’s long gone but still lamented Goodspeeds Book Store.
Even as a young fellow, John’s eye for a good book, and a good deal, was discerning.  He recalled for a newspaper reporter a windfall he came upon at Goodspeeds itself. At the time Goodspeeds had two shops.  The storefront “on the hill” was for upscale customers while those of more modest means frequented the establishment’s location on south Church Street. were the “lesser” books were sold.  One day while looking through the ten cent table at the Church Street location John stumbled upon a book of considerable value that had somehow been overlooked by the staff.  He promptly purchased it for a dime and marched over to the Goodspeeds “on the hill” where he resold the book for fifteen dollars.
As a young man John worked for several years for the Worcester Telegram and Gazette as a sports reporter.  Newspapers were very much in the young man’s blood.  Both his father and grandfather had worked as type engravers until their craft was made outmoded by photographic reproductions in newspapers.  When not covering an event for the paper, John demonstrated himself a more than able athlete, excelling in track events.  It was his athletic skill that first brought John to Michigan.  Offered a track scholarship at what is today Eastern Michigan University, John packed his bags and traveled west from Worcester to Ypsilanti. 
After graduation John eventually found employment in the Detroit Public School system.  He taught journalism for several years and subsequently became a high school counselor.  During his years in Detroit John obtained a master’s degree in English Literature from the University of Michigan.
In September 1961 John was lured away from Ford high school to become director of the Clarke Historical Library.  In his many years as director John carried out a wide variety of roles and responsibilities.  As director of the Clarke perhaps his greatest accomplishment was in building the fledgling collection.  Dr. Clarke’s gift to his alma mater in 1954 was a generous beginning, but it was not a comprehensive body of material.  There was much work to be done.  John rose to the challenge of finding the important but obscure volumes that the collection needed, and took considerable delight in the chase.
In a speech he delivered as director John talked about his collecting activities.  He saw his role as something of the underdog.  “Wealthy, competent, aggressive collectors were amassing materials of this type for Detroit and Ann Arbor long before Central Michigan University was ever conceived.  One would think then that little would remain for a new-comer to collect.”  John, however, was convinced that there remained much to collect — if one were willing to do a little digging.
And dig John did.  He estimated that he traveled 28,000 miles each year chasing down leads.  He spent time listening to people.  As John noted, “Some days I stand around at a farm auction for hours, waiting nervously for a box of books to come under the hammer.  There may be one item that we want and it may be worth waiting for.  We wait nervously, hoping that nobody else recognizes it.  Seldom, however, do we find any rare books at farm auctions, but we do meet people there who have things that we want.”  Seldom, indeed.  John once estimated that in fifteen years of visiting farm auctions he had come upon five rare books.   
John once shared with an audience that one of the most thrilling experiences he had as a young man was catching a three and a half pound trout in northern Ontario.  Having shared with his audience his elation with his catch that day, he continued, “My fishing these days is for old books, letters, and diaries, and other items of historical interest.  But the thrill is just as intense.”
In the final annual report he wrote as director of the Clarke, detailing the library’s activities in academic year 1981-82, John allowed that, “Since there will be no more annual reports from this director, he may indulge himself in a few backward glances.”  These backward glances ran to seven finely printed pages and returned over and again to the joys of collecting.  In the twenty one years of acquisitions that were revisited, the many, many joys that John experienced collecting for the Library became clear. 
There was a great pride taken in this little “indulgent” essay in the number of pre-1851 Michigan imprints that the Library had located.   There were a few items listed of particular pride.  One was the second known copy of a broadside published in Detroit in 1809 addressed to President James Madison and listing the alleged shortcomings of General William Hull.  Another was obtaining the Maxwell Code, the first book published in the Old Northwest Territory.  A third treasure mentioned by name was a rare daguerreotype of the polygamous James Jesse Strang with his second wife, disguised as his “male” secretary.  But perhaps John’s favorite found treasure were the surveyor notes of Douglas Houghton.
In October 1972 John and a member of the Clarke staff, Bill Miles, had been attending an annual meeting of the Manuscripts Society, held in New York City.  As was the custom of the Society, an auction was planned at the close of the meeting.  John and Bill took a few minutes to peruse items soon to be sold.  Moving from one lot to the next, John happened to follow a man who had just looked at an otherwise untouched and poorly described group of unidentified “Michigan surveyor notes.”  With his wonderful knowledge of state history and keen eye, after a few minutes John came to an amazing conclusion.  He leaned over to Miles and in a hushed tone said “they’re Houghton’s.”  John had unearthed a treasure, Douglas Houghton’s daily survey notes for the years 1838 until his death in 1845.   The notebooks represented some of the most important field surveying notes in the state’s history.  He quickly followed his initial declaration with a more forcefully whispered question, “who was that other guy?”  Fortunately for John, “that other guy” had not recognized the treasure that lay before him.  At the auction, after a token bid or two, he surrendered the lot to John.  One of the Clarke’s greatest treasures came home with John that day. 
John summed up his collecting activity as a joyful hunt.
One does not start the year with a plan to acquire certain basic items during that period, simply because the rare books desired may never appear in that year or subsequent years.  That element of chance adds to the excitement and interest of the searcher.  As with luck in most circumstances, one can help it along and sometimes unearth a rare book which might have remained undiscovered without the hunter’s efforts.
It seems very clear that John’s greatest pleasure as director came not in showcasing a volume within the Library but rather in the search to find a new and even better acquisition.
John’s greatest joy as director may have come from collecting, but collecting was hardly his only contribution to the Library and to state history.  One of his most significant acts was the pivotal role he played the preservation of Michigan’s newspaper heritage.  Like many other local historians, John realized that newspapers were the single most important source for local history.  Unlike his colleagues, John took the time to survey this precious resource to better understand their availability.  He soon realized that these invaluable sources of local and rural history were rapidly being lost through accident or neglect.  Having discovered a crisis, in 1963 John set about to create the solution — a project to undertake preservation microfilming of the state’s newspapers.
Money was hard to raise.  The Kresge Foundation offered $20,000, but only if John could raise $30,000.00 additional dollars in three years.  Despite intense effort, as the deadline approached John was $8,000 short.  A last minute gift from the McGregor fund of $5,000 as well as “closing gifts” from several private philanthropists amounting to $3,000 made the project possible.  In September 1966 the Clarke was able to purchase two microfilm cameras and embark on a pioneering project to film Michigan newspapers. John emphasized the small town weeklies found in so many rural communities.   It was with no exaggeration when John said that, “This is one of the most important efforts at historical preservation ever undertaken in the state.”  In launching Michigan’s first newspaper microfilming project, John’s only mistake was to underestimate the need.  John believed that the still ongoing project would be completed in about five years.
John also had a love of children.  He seemed to intuitively recognize the need to capture the imagination of young minds and the power of history to do so.  Two years after arriving at Central, in 1963, he was doing a television show seen in 243 Michigan schools.  “The only place history in unpopular is in the schools.” said John.  He delighted the children with his memorable tales that would linger in their minds for years.  Richard Miles recalls an episode when he was doing a presentation for a group of boy scouts.  As he talked about a particular item one youngster earnestly waved his hand for recognition.  Given the floor, the child asked Bill to repeat himself.  After listening again to Bill’s explanation, the boy said, “well, that’s not what that old fat man told us last year.”  John enjoyed tremendously learning of the detailed recollection the boy had of his talk, although he did take some umbrage at the adjectives “old” and “fat.” 
In 1982 John retired as director, but not without a final flourish.  The University, then as now, had an official “gift list” of parting presents from which a retiring employee might select.  When asked his wish from this list John, without looking at the paper, said, “a watch.”  He was gravely informed by those who decided such matters that a watch could only be awarded to those with twenty-five or more years of service and not to someone with a mere twenty-one years in the University’s employ.  John persisted, and took advantage of the University President’s position on the Clarke Board to make then President Harold Abel aware of his wish.  Abel waved John off, pointing out that things such as watches were not his responsibility.
If John was persistent on the point, so to was the University bureaucracy.  The conversation went on for days and became famous around campus.  To each of John’s requests for a watch the bureaucracy responded by asking that he select an item from the approved list.  When the day of John’s retirement party arrived John and the bureaucracy had come to an impasse. John refused to pick an alternate gift and the University officials in charge of the matter refused to offer a watch.  When it was Harold Abel’s turn to speak at the celebration he rose and with a sly smile said simply, “I don’t have much to add to what has already been said except, John, here’s your watch.” It was a touching gesture of respect and gratitude from the University’s senior officer. 
During his years at the Clarke John also was an active professional.  He was involved in a variety of organizations.  He served as president of the Michigan Archival Association.  He was also a director of the Historical Society of Michigan.  He was perhaps best known as an effective speaker, crisscrossing the state to share his infectious love of history with audiences throughout Michigan.
Although busy for twenty-one years at the Library and at professional meetings, John found time to cultivate a number of hobbies, the most lasting of which was his printing press.  Using a nineteenth century Chandler & Price platen press, John became a small publisher of considerable renown.  Taking from two to three hours to hand set each page of type, each of his many books took approximately one year to complete.  They were usually printed in runs of from three hundred to five hundred copies.  Originally John also personally bound his books.  In later years, however, the books were bound at a commercial bindery, John having decided that binding was far less enjoyable a hobby than printing.
Printing was in John’s blood.  Both his father and grandfather had worked as type engravers until their craft was made outmoded by photographic reproductions in newspapers.  John received his first press at age seven as a gift from his parents.  On an off John tinkered with printing for the rest of his life.  Having inherited a printer’s legacy, John worried greatly about the technical merits of his publications.  As John himself expressed it, “To me, it’s a work of art.”  John haunted old print shops, looking for additional typefaces to add to his collection as well as old borders, printer’s ornaments, cuts and engravings.  Ultimately John’s type collection included over six hundred fonts plus innumerable other items.  All this type, a careful eye for the printer’s craft, experience, and considerable skill created work that compared well against any other master of the printer’s craft.
Although John’s small press did indeed preserve the printer’s art, for many of his patrons what drew them to John’s books was less their great technical finesse then John’s eye for a “good read.”  The slender volumes that rolled of John’s press invariably told a fascinating tale.  Perhaps those most enjoyed by John were books relating the adventure of travel and the seeking of fortune.   An example of this type of book is the diary of Basil Austin.  In 1898 Austin joined thousands of other men seeking their fortunes in the newly discovered Alaskan gold fields.  Eventually Austin and a companion netted a few thousand dollars in profit.  He and his partner decided to celebrate by taking a trip to Dawson but their trip eastward continued until in the summer of 1900 they returned home to Detroit.  Unlike hundreds of other men who ventured to Alaska Austin was a good writer who kept a detailed diary.  It was just the kind of story John loved, despite the work involved.  As John himself noted,
            “It is really too big a job for a home print shop.  I print two pages at a time, fold the pages, and insert them into sixteen page signatures.  By Monday I have stiff muscles. ...  now that it is just about done, I am glad that I did it.  It is just too good a story to remain unpublished.”
Whether to the Alaskan gold strike of 1898 or the California gold fields in 1849, stories of men seeking to make their fortune in the rough and tumble excitement of a boom town filled the pages of John’s press.  The press of John Cumming told these tales in an invariably good-looking book.  The press never actually made money.  As John noted, the only accounting ink he ever saw was red.  However, in 1982 the Historical Society of Michigan recognized “the printer of Mount Pleasant,” through an award of merit. 
When not collecting or publishing, John was busy writing.  The “printer of Mount Pleasant” has also been described as the city’s principal historian.  His books This Place Mount Pleasant and his centennial history of Central Michigan University define the history of Isabella County and one of its most significant institutions.  In 1976 John distilled much of what he had learned about writing local history in the aptly named, A Guide for the Writing of Local History.       
Collector, printer, and author, all these describe John but they leave out an important aspect of the man: his legendary sense of humor.  In his early years at Central, university cars were emblazoned with the state seal. When using one of these cars for a field trip, John often indulged in a lunchtime pizza.  After having been served his pie and having eaten a piece or two he would ask to speak to the manager.  Proclaiming in his most official voice that he was the “state pizza inspector,” John would gravely shake his head and express his deep concern over the establishment’s sub-standard pepperoni.  If the manager had the temerity to suggest that he or she had never heard of a state pizza inspector or the alleged legally enforceable pepperoni standard, John would simply point to his state vehicle, parked with considerable calculation to be plain view, and offer it as proof of his official status. 
He delighted in efforts to “catch” staff members.  One of his most famous “gotchas” took place on the live radio show he and Bill Miles presented.  The day’s show was on Michigan place names.  Miles listened while John waxed poetic about the possibilities of visiting Paris or Paradise.  As this litany proceeded John suddenly ended his comments with, “and you Bill Miles can go to Hell.”  Hell, Michigan of course, but the line left Miles speechless.  With each passing second of dead air time John’s grin became larger.
Although always respectful of the many contributions made to the Library by its founder, John was not above having some sport even at Doctor Clarke’s expense.  A memorable incident occurred one day when Dr. Clarke sought entry into the Library’s stacks.  Dr. Clarke had been emphatic that his was to be a closed stack Library and no researcher, absolutely none no matter what their status, should be able to wander through the stacks.  Such an unwavering rule was bound to have unforeseen consequences.  One day as Dr. Clarke attempted to enter “his” Library’s stacks a new staff member, whether knowing to whom she was speaking or not to this day remaining a matter of some conjecture, physically blocked the door and informed the good Doctor that “no one, absolutely no one” could enter the stacks.  
Furious at the youngster’s impudence Dr. Clarke stormed into John’s office.  Savoring the moment, John slowly lit a cigar, this occurring in the era before smoking was banned in the building, and reminded the Library’s most important benefactor that the young lady was merely following the repeated instructions given by Doctor Clarke himself.  Staff lore does not recall Dr. Clarke’s response to this eminently logical answer but John did allow that his words were not the ones Dr. Clarke was seeking to hear.
The printer of Mount Pleasant and the longest serving director of the Clarke Library always had an eye for a good book, an ear for a good story, and a passionate commitment to share his books and his stories with others.  But the story of the printer himself is equally full of good books, good stories, and a more than its share of the devil.  Just as John’s press preserved and shared tales of lives well lived, lives too full of energy and accomplishment for him to allow them to pass unnoticed, so too John’s story is one of energy and accomplishment and tales too rich to be left untold.  Those of us privileged to carry on his work in the Library take this opportunity to pause, to thank, and to salute a man whose farsighted vision and life well lived deeply enriched the Library itself and each of us who knew him.

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