Putting the Past to Work
The business of historical discovery doesn't always happen in clean, well-lighted places. That's why Bridget Reddick '99 found herself, in a hard hat and high heels, exploring a grimy locomotive shop in Roanoke, Virginia, on a cold December day, poking through more than 150 years of railroad artifacts.
Reddick works for The History Factory, a unique Chantilly, Virginia-based firm that helps companies and other organizations retrieve their past and put it to use for current-day projects, everything from new marketing campaigns to research for lawsuits.
For this assignment, Reddick was helping Norfolk Southern, one of America's legendary railroads, identify significant relics for a corporate museum to be built at its Norfolk headquarters.
She had traveled to Norfolk Southern sites throughout Virginia, searching for memorabilia that would be appropriate for the museum. But she most remembers this particular shop.
"As we were banging around the empty buildings, we came to the pattern shop, covered in greasy dust. There we found wooden models of nearly everything the railroad ever built, from the tiniest drawer pulls on a secretary's desk to a locomotive wheel that was taller than I am."
As she learned in her research, during the days long before computer-aided design, the predecessors of Norfolk Southern constructed nearly everything they needed in-house. They used wooden models to ensure that every locomotive wheel--and drawer pull--was built to the same exacting specifications.
"It was amazing to see these beautiful mahogany models of things like locomotive wheels," says Reddick, who double majored in English and history at Kenyon. "One of the challenges we faced was how to use some of these huge, heavy artifacts in a museum setting."
Reddick and her colleagues at The History Factory, including several other Kenyon graduates, face similar creative challenges every day. If the goal isn't a museum, it may be a major corporate anniversary celebration. Sometimes the projects become newsworthy in unanticipated ways. Earlier this year, The History Factory was pursuing research for the Wachovia Corporation, one of the nation's largest banks, which was participating in the redevelopment of a housing project in Chicago. As part of the process, the city required the bank to investigate any past ties to slavery--and, according to a release from Wachovia's Web site, "the resulting research [by The History Factory] revealed that two of [its] predecessor institutions, the Georgia Railroad and Banking Company and the Bank of Charleston, owned slaves." Wachovia issued an apology, published The History Factory's full report on its Web site, and said that it planned to work with community organizations to promote awareness of African-American history.
In-depth historical research like this takes a certain kind of person, says Bruce Weindruch, founder and chief executive officer of The History Factory.
"There's no training program for History Factory people," Weindruch says. "I need to get people who have been motivated
and inspired by a liberal-arts environment, who have a lot of inter-disciplinary knowledge and who can learn new things quickly. That's what I find in Kenyon grads."
Indeed, Reddick is one of three alumni--the others are Michael Leland and Josh Danson, both members of the Class of 1994--who work at The History Factory. Joining them this past summer was current student John Stewart '06, who was pursuing his second summer internship there. A former employee, Nicholas Einstein '94, who was a Kenyon friend of both Leland and Danson, was instrumental in starting the Kenyon connection.
The History Factory's motto is "Start with the Future and Work Back," says Weindruch. "Current companies look to their history for answers and validation about what's happening to them right now." In other words, firms can use their history to help craft approaches to the future.
Norfolk Southern offers a good example. Reddick and her colleagues at The History Factory put together a master plan for the company's new museum, which meant conducting informational interviews with present and past employees, designing the museum space, choosing artifacts, and writing text for displays. When the museum opens (possibly later this year), it will be more than just a corporate history, Reddick says.
"The Norfolk Southern story is part of a bigger American story. Railroads have been an integral part of American history and are still important today, and the museum will show that connection between railroads and the growth of the country," she says.
Weindruch says a liberal arts education is crucial for his employees. He needs people with a wide-ranging education, who are used to thinking critically and finding connections between disparate ideas. In a word, he needs Kenyon grads.
"Once you get one Kenyon grad, you can't stop them," jokes the CEO. "It seems whenever we have an empty chair, it's filled by another Kenyon grad."
Weindruch, who is a liberal-arts graduate himself (Grinnell, Class of 1978), actually has a personal connection to Kenyon. His daughter Nancy is a junior at the College, he and his wife, Susan, are chairs of the 2005-06 Kenyon Parents Fund, and he is a member of the Parents Advisory Council, serving on the council's career development committee--an appropriate assignment for someone who employs so many alumni.
One of those alumni is Josh Danson. A history major at Kenyon, he is now client counsel for the History Factory and is based in San Francisco. His job involves identifying new clients and working with them to find ways to use their past.
"I think sitting around a corporate conference table is similar to the seminar experience at Kenyon," says Danson. "You have to be able to hold your own with very bright people, and exchange ideas and come up with ones that will work. The confidence in my own intellectual and analytical abilities that I learned at Kenyon has helped me in my professional life."
Kenyon has also helped him in a more direct way. Danson landed Sun Microsystems as a client in part because one of his college friends worked in Sun's marketing department and introduced him to the right people.
As a result, in recognition of the tenth anniversary of Java Technology, The History Factory helped capture the history of the groundbreaking programming language that allows software applications to work on a wide variety of systems and devices.
The History Factory conducted videotaped oral histories with the key people involved in developing Java Technology. What emerged was the dramatic story of a secret team of employees who locked themselves away in an anonymous office and cut off all regular communications with Sun Microsystems, working around the clock for eighteen months until Java was completed. A video that used clips from the oral history interviews was a hit at this year's JavaOne conference for software developers and others who use Java Technology. And the information gathered was also leveraged to create a Web site--java.com/history--about the history of Java Technology.
The project, Danson says, helped him realize that history is happening all the time, right around us. "You don't have to be ancient to have a history. I deal a lot with technology companies, and we talk about 'Internet time'--in Silicon Valley, ten years is a very long time."
For other industries, the past goes back a good deal further. Leland, a senior client counsel based in San Diego, worked with a global paper company to help celebrate its centennial in 1998. One of the centerpieces was a 209-page coffee-table book, filled with material that Leland and his colleagues gathered in hours of interviews with employees at mills around the country.
"I remember one interview where this guy shows up with a huge duffel bag," says Leland. "He reaches into the bag and pulls out this tool that looks sort of like an axe." Leland laughs. "I was a little nervous at first, I have to admit."
The item was actually a short-handled tool that loggers would use to manipulate logs as they came down a river to a paper mill.
Before joining The History Factory, Reddick worked in development offices at the Chicago Historical Society and the National Postal Museum, jobs that furthered her interest in combining the academic realm and the business world. At The History Factory, "several threads that I was interested in came together," she says. "I got to use my business skills while keeping my academic skill base."
Her Kenyon education has played a major role in her success. One of her most valuable experiences was her year in the Kenyon-Exeter Program at the University of Exeter in England. That experience taught her "that I could be dropped off anywhere and make it work," says Reddick. "I could be in a strange city with people I don't know and figure out how to get along. And I've done that a lot here."
She echoes Danson in noting that her Kenyon friendships have also helped her professionally. A good friend who went on to become a doctor, for example, helped Reddick with a project for Boston Scientific, a manufacturer of medical equipment. Reddick was working on Boston Scientific's twenty-fifth anniversary celebration and wanted to know more about one of the instruments that helped launch the company--the world's first steerable catheter.
"It was great to have someone to help me understand these devices and how they were used and why they were important in the history of medicine," she says.
Reddick used instruments like the catheter in exhibits that the company created for medical conferences. "We wanted to show how the company has worked with physicians throughout its history to develop important new devices such as the steerable catheter."
If a liberal-arts education from Kenyon helps employees at The History Factory, the reverse is also true; just ask Stewart, the two-time intern. Stewart says that his first summer internship yielded great benefits in class, particularly in the upper-level course "Practice and Theory of History."
One of his summer assignments had been to go through boxes of archival material that companies sent to The History Factory, culling material that seemed significant or that might lend itself to future
projects. "All those hours and days back in the warehouse by myself, going through boxes of documents, really helped me learn about how to do historical research," Stewart says. "I've learned how to do research quickly, and how to skim out what's historically significant from what is not. My grades certainly reflect what I've learned."
Stewart has also had the thrill of making an original historical discovery. During his first summer at The History Factory, he was helping to catalogue boxes of documents from a major American retail chain. At the end of one long, tiring day, he was about to call it quits but decided to go through one last box. "And I looked down at this one document and realized it was a letter signed by Abraham Lincoln. It was a letter to a Civil War widow, giving her eighty acres of land. No one was quite sure how it ended up in this company's archives, but it was quite a thrill. You never know what you're going to find."
What Kenyon grads find at The History Factory is fascinating and fulfilling work in which the value of their liberal arts education is apparent every day.
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