SJR Column: Lincoln, February 2019

February commonly brings predictions of spring’s arrival provided by a groundhog named Phil or handfuls of candy conversation hearts to celebrate Valentine’s Day. Here in Springfield, Illinois, however, February’s center stage goes to our own hometown hero – Abraham Lincoln. With Mr. Lincoln’s 210th birthday only two days away – my thoughts, too, are with the 16th President.

Fortunately, resources for contemplating Lincoln are close at hand here at the University of Illinois Springfield. The study of Abraham Lincoln – his leadership and his legacy – is a unique point of pride for the University that continues to grow and contribute to the education of tomorrow’s leaders as well as to the Springfield community.

Though UIS faculty in many areas of study engage in teaching and research about Lincoln, Professor Michael Burlingame, who occupies the Naomi B. Lynn Distinguished Chair in Lincoln Studies, is most prominent. The author of many critically acclaimed Lincoln books including a biography titled Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Burlingame believes learning about Lincoln “… deepens students’ understanding of what it means to be an American.”

Devin Hunter, who joined the UIS faculty after working at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. and earning a Ph.D. in Public History from Loyola University, agrees. “Studying Lincoln’s life,” says Hunter, “enables better understanding of how others navigate challenges – some of which are similar to what we see today.”

Professors Burlingame and Hunter take full advantage of their location in Lincoln’s hometown where resources for teaching and research about Lincoln and his time abound.

“I have a 75-step commute from my residence to do my research at the Lincoln Presidential Library,” says Burlingame, “which has a fabulous collection of primary source materials, books and journals.”

“Next to the Library of Congress,” he continues, “it’s the premier place to do Lincoln research.” (Burlingame’s current project is focused on Lincoln’s many interactions with African Americans throughout his lifetime.)

Hunter, who is currently teaching a course titled “Monuments, Museums and Memory,” could not agree more with his colleague’s assessment.

“To have local, state, and federal sites all within a small radius is uncommon,” he says, “and it creates an opportunity for faculty and students to have unparalleled access to a variety of important historical sites and information.”

Local resources also create opportunities for hands-on learning and community engagement. One of Dr. Hunter’s classes recently served as an advisory panel for Springfield’s African American History Museum. His students also help conduct a local “History Harvest” – inviting Illinois residents to bring historical items to a site where they are digitized and become part of an online exhibit.

Many UIS graduates who studied Lincoln at UIS have gone on to successful careers in a variety of leadership roles. Claire Jerry is one of them. Claire earned a Master’s degree in Public History from UIS and then a Ph.D. from the University of Kansas. She is now at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. where she is the Lead Curator in Political History at the National Museum of American History.

“My experiences at UIS were absolutely essential to my career as a museum professional,” says Jerry. “Professor William Siles’ insistence that I pursue increasingly challenging opportunities gave me the confidence to do more than I had ever thought possible and Dr. Cecilia Cornell not only insisted I do my best work, but that I strive for more.

“I would not be where I am today,” she concludes, “without the education I received at UIS.”

UIS has also played an important role in the career of UIS alum Timothy Townsend – a historian at the Lincoln Home National Historic Site in Springfield who helps present the Lincoln story to visitors from around the world.

“The way the UIS program integrates traditional academic history with public history was just what I needed to further develop my career with the National Park Service,” says Tim.

“I especially appreciated the way Professor Cullom Davis presented the profession of history with a wise and practical real-world approach that inspired me then – and still does today.”

Lincoln Studies at UIS will take another important step forward in the coming year with the formal launch of the Center for Lincoln Studies – a priority of the current Reaching Stellar fundraising campaign. With planning underway for collaboration with the ALPLM, the Abraham Lincoln Association and other Lincoln-oriented organizations, the Center will provide new opportunities for learning about Lincoln and the impact of his contributions. The Center also aspires to advance research in Lincoln Studies and help prepare the next generation of Lincoln scholars.

A few months ago, UIS hosted the Illinois Symphony Orchestra’s Illinois Bicentennial Celebration Concert, which included a performance of Aaron Copeland’s beloved Lincoln Portrait. I had the privilege of narrating the performance with words Copeland drew from Lincoln’s speeches and letters. The narration begins with the formidable first words of Lincoln’s 1862 State of the Union Address: “Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history.”

As we mark Lincoln’s birthday this week here in Springfield, those words are as true today as they were in 1862. I’m so pleased the growing Lincoln Studies agenda at the University of Illinois Springfield will enable us to further embrace, rather than escape, history.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Lincoln!

Susan J. Koch, Chancellor of University of Illinois at Springfield

Chancellor Susan J. Koch