A modern-day Nancy Drew, Rice’s centennial historian Melissa Kean experiences both thrills and chills in her fearless hunt for Rice history.
For a woman with five degrees, a quick sense of humor and a limitless supply of fearless curiosity, it takes surprisingly little to bring Melissa Kean to her knees. Recently it was the renovation of Autry Court, which laid bare cupboards and secret rooms filled to the brim with dusty papers, crumbling boxes and plenty of long-lost gems that enabled Kean to piece together a Rice Athletics past that had been just as dim as some of those Autry Court closets.
The treasures she retrieved while crawling around the old buildings are a reflection of Kean’s professional goals at Rice. As a historian who completed her Rice dissertation in 2000 on the desegregation of five Southern, private universities and who recently published a book that explores the same theme more deeply, she was ecstatic to discover reams and reams of papers from the coaches’ offices, from the Committee on Outdoor Sports and from the athletic director’s office that go all the way back to the 1930s.
As an antiquarian seeking to build the university’s collection of Rice-related artifacts, Kean was tickled to find another brand of history in the old gym: the kind that sits in a display case and not only symbolizes a glorious past, but also hints at a great future. Nestled in the gymnasium’s forgotten depths, Kean found, among other glimpses of history, game balls from the Cotton Bowl, ribbons won by Rice runners in the 1920 Southwest Conference track meet, programs, trophies and a treasure trove of football-game films.
“I’m trying to do things that are related to each other but are really quite different. One is to be a scholar and the other is to be a resource for Rice alums and other people at Rice who are interested in historical things.”
— Melissa Kean
“For different reasons, I’m interested in both types of finds,” Kean said. “I’m trying to do things that are related to each other but are really quite different. One is to be a scholar and the other is to be a resource for alums and other people at Rice who are interested in historical things.”
But sleuthing the past and unearthing treasures can be risky. In the line of duty, Kean has braved everything from paper cuts and stubbed toes to brown recluse spider bites.
“You’ve got to be made of pretty stern stuff to manage that, because it’s dangerous!” said Kean, her eyes twinkling with mischief. “Not to mention the older ladies. I spend a lot of time talking with them about their history at Rice, and they’ll feed you ’til you pop!”
Kean’s job also gives her a front-row view of the idiosyncrasies and deep devotion of Rice’s faculty and administration throughout the years. Her insights stem partly from her intimacy with their papers and artifacts but also come through one of the more difficult aspects of her job.
“I clean out people’s offices after they’ve died, and sometimes the things you find in there rip your heart out,” she said. One faculty member, for example, kept every grade book for every single class he taught. “That’s very moving to me,” she said, her voice husky with emotion. “It makes me even more committed to doing the best job I can as a scholar.”
That job is even more important in light of Rice’s Centennial Campaign and upcoming centennial anniversary, which will celebrate the very history that Kean is enriching.
Kean takes the Rice-related items she finds in those offices and other places to the university archives in Rice’s Woodson Research Center, where they are either sent through the shredder or enjoy new life as part of an archival collection. She and the Woodson archivists determine which — and sometimes the task is more serious than you might expect.
A case in point are the Masterson papers, which she ranks among the most important finds she’s ever made. The papers, which date back to 1969 and reflect the record keeping of Herbert Allen, then-vice chairman of the Board of Trustees, came to Kean through Allen’s daughter, Anne Symonds. They chronicle in gritty, unvarnished detail a dark moment in university history known as the Masterson Affair, which began when the board appointed a president without first consulting the faculty and ended less than a week later when the new president resigned as a result of the faculty’s uprising.
Kean said the find helped her understand the Masterson Affair from the trustees’ perspective in a way that wasn’t possible when all she had to go on was the board’s official minutes. And that’s the way much of her understanding of Rice’s complex history has materialized.
“It’s like I’m doing a jigsaw puzzle with a million pieces, and every once in a while I’ll get one — like the stuff from Anne Symonds — that enables me to do a whole corner,” she said. “But every piece goes somewhere, which is part of why this job is so joyful. I just love to see where stuff fits.”
That natural curiosity is only one of the attributes that makes Kean a good fit for her job, according to Lee Pecht, certified archivist and Fondren Library’s head of special collections. “Melissa is inquisitive, incredibly perceptive, attuned to the gaps in information in the university archives — and she knows how to talk to just about anyone to learn what she needs.”
Kean’s former Rice history professor and current colleague John Boles ’65 also praised her optimism, sense of humor and nonstop energy. “She is an inspiration to be around,” he said.
Still, when students ask Kean how a person gets a job like hers, she answers in all seriousness that she has no idea. “I was standing still, and all this stuff just happened to me,” she said. Her path to the position of centennial historian was laced with happy accidents: a career as a lawyer that gave way to two children 12 months apart; a Hebrew class that offered free child care and resulted in a full scholarship for graduate study in history at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb.; a move to Houston when she was only four hours from completing her Creighton master’s; a graduate-level course with Boles that ignited her love for Southern history; and, through it all, a will to do the best she could with whatever task fell to her at any given time.
Kean still lives according to that philosophy. And whether it means unearthing dark secrets, crawling around on all fours in a dusty gymnasium closet or interviewing older alums and eating until she pops, she’s happy to do it for the joy she finds on her adventurous hunt for Rice’s history.