May 16th, 2013
The West Virginia and Regional History Center at the West Virginia University Libraries is already benefiting from a $100,000 donation from WVU alumna Louise Amelia Robinson.
Its first fruit is a thick sketchbook from Joseph H. Diss Debar, the artist who designed West Virginia’s state seal. Inside the cover are page after page of drawings of figures and events that shaped state and world history.
“Louise Robinson’s gift to the West Virginia and Regional History Center has made an immediate impact,” center Director John Cuthbert said. “The Diss Debar sketchbook has far exceeded my expectations. There are numerous sketches relating directly to the creation of West Virginia as the nation’s 35th state.”
The WVU Libraries recognized the gift during a ceremony honoring Robinson’s family in April. A plaque recognizing Robinson now hangs in the center.
Robinson made the bequest with the intent of assisting the West Virginia and Regional History Center in its mission to acquire and preserve important artifacts, documents, and materials that tell the story of the state’s history.
The West Virginia native learned quite a bit about the importance of preservation throughout her career. After graduating from WVU in 1944 with a bachelor’s degree in history, Robinson went on to work with National Geographic for more than 40 years.
One of her duties involved clipping and cataloging articles from newspapers from around the world. National Geographic writers would later use them in research when penning their own articles.
The practice bled over into her personal life. Her niece, Nancy Walker, said that Robinson kept clipping envelopes for family and friends on anything she thought involved their interests.
“Aunt Louise believed in historic preservation,” Walker said. “She thought we have a lot to learn from the past and we need to preserve it as much as possible.”
Working with the Robinson family, the Libraries used the bequest to establish an endowment for future acquisitions and preservation endeavors, and a fund to enable immediate purchases and preservation efforts.
“This gift enables us to preserve in the West Virginia and Regional History Center things we would not otherwise have been able to afford and would certainly have ended up in a collection outside of West Virginia,” Cuthbert said.
The Diss Debar sketch book definitely falls into that category. Acquired through an auction house, it was at risk of landing in a private collection or at a museum in another state because of the content’s wide appeal.
There are drawings of members of royal families, author Charles Dickens, editor Horace Greely, industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Mexican General Juan Almonte.
Of interest to state historians, Diss Disbar captured President Abraham Lincoln meeting with Sen. Peter Van Winkle, a state founder and senator; a large group chatting about the succession and statehood; and a gathering of West Virginia legislators receiving news from Gettysburg.
There’s also some controversy among the pages. Two sketches of abolitionist John Brown appear to corroborate claims that he visited Clarksburg. One is of Brown sitting in the Harrison County Court House watching a slave kidnapping trial. It is dated two months before the Harpers Ferry raid and has a note that Brown was “incognito.” Another sketch is of Brown and Diss Debar traveling by horseback from Clarksburg to Shinnston.
“This sketch book is a tremendously rich resource with images of people and places in West Virginia and far beyond,” Cuthbert said.
Robinson’s gift was made in conjunction with A State of Minds: The Campaign for West Virginia’s University. The $750 million comprehensive campaign being conducted by the WVU Foundation on behalf of the University runs through December 2015.