By Betsy Miner-Swartz
Reprinted from Centralight Fall 2017
Sometimes a 1980s yearbook is all Bryan Whitledge needs to dispel a myth, answer a question or track down a quirky detail about Central Michigan University.
But more often than not, CMU's archivist and manager for university digital records needs to do some sleuthing to pin down and preserve 125 years of the university's history.
“He’s an amazing
detective. You can give him a fact or two, and he starts digging.” — Marcie
Otteman, executive director of Alumni Relations
"I try to find out what was going on here during certain periods of time," Whitledge said. "Sometimes it's a lot more difficult than you'd think, and luck is a lot of it."
Take CMU women's basketball, for example.
"That takes a lot of digging," he said. "You have to read through everything about the men's team starting in 1905 and just hope to find something about the Girls' Normal Team."
Whitledge fields hundreds of questions a year at Clarke Historical Library, and he can almost always find the answer — if he doesn't already know it. In just six years at CMU, his institutional knowledge is off the charts.
"He's an amazing detective. You can give him a fact or two, and he starts digging," said Marcie Otteman, executive director of Alumni Relations. "Even if he can't find what you're looking for, which is rare, he'll give you every dead end he ran into while looking for it."
As the university celebrates its 125th anniversary this academic year, Whitledge was asked about the individuals who founded CMU, among dozens of other questions.
"The first meeting was in May of 1892," he said. "I've been asked everything from that to 'What trees were planted in honor of alumni at CMU?' "
He didn't just find mention of the trees. He took a hike with an intern one day so they could identify every single alumni tree on campus.
"I said, 'Let's go find a weeping cherry that's supposed to be south of the west doors of that building over there.' "
He's become an expert on CMU's history, which is impressive considering he knew close to nothing about CMU when he took the job in 2011 after earning his master's degree in library science at the University of Illinois.
Some of the history he can rattle off is pretty mundane: When did the Board of Trustees meet for the first time?
"It was in 1964. That's really boring, but it's important for why we are what we are," he said.
Other questions are far from dull — even if the answers might be a letdown.
"Like 'what was the Death House?' That question just came up," he said. "I found a 1980s yearbook and learned that it was simply a myth about a gruesome death that wasn't really gruesome at all."
Another mystery solved.