To The Letter Episode 4: An Interlude with Alice


Episode 4 is here! In this episode, we take a step away from Joe and Agnes’ story to meet one of Agnes’ friends, Alice Gelisle. This is the only letter we have from Alice, but we felt it was so packed with good information we didn’t want to miss it! In her letter, Alice discusses all the facets of her life–working in a factory, playing basketball, rationing, fashion, and going to dances. We hope you enjoy it as much as we did.

To the Letter is a podcast brought to you in collaboration with University Libraries and the eLearning and Emerging Technologies Digital Studio. Alice Gelisle was voiced by student Katie Newville. Special thanks to Marcia Lee for joining us!

Alice’s letter is available below:


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Letter to Agnes Van Der Weide from Alice Gelisle, sent Jan. 22, 1944

Did you enjoy hearing Alice’s perspective? Let us know! Send questions and comments to or leave us a review on iTunes! We can’t wait to hear from you!

To the Letter Episode 3: Reading Other People’s Mail


Episode 3 is all about reading other people’s mail. Many thanks to Lynn Heidelbaugh, a curator at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, for speaking to us about the logistics of the postal system in WWII. Lynn is incredibly knowledgeable about all the complexities of how mail and packages traveled overseas, how censorship worked, and the development of Victory mail, or “V-mail”.

If you’re interested in learning more about war and the mail, we highly recommend checking out the National Postal Museum’s latest exhibit-that Lynn worked on!- My Fellow Soldiers: Letters from World War I.

To the Letter is a podcast brought to you in collaboration with University Libraries and the eLearning and Emerging Technologies Digital Studio. Joe Olexa is voiced by Kevin McCasland.

Letters featured in Episode 3 are available below:


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Letter from Joe Olexa to Agnes Van Der Weide, Jan. 24, 1944


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Letter from Joe Olexa to Agnes Van Der Weide, March 4, 1944


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Letter from Joe Olexa to Agnes Van Der Weide, March 7, 1944


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Letter from Joe Olexa to Agnes Van Der Weide, March 15, 1944

And as promised, here’s an example of both the full V-Mail sheet and the shrunk down version that would have been what Agnes actually received.

Letter to Agnes, sent Sept. 14, 1943
V-Mail Instructions and envelope on reverse of letter
V-Mail sent to Agnes, Sept. 15, 1943 via V-Mail

The final V-Mail is in black and white and is only a fraction of the size of the original.

Questions about the mail? V-mail? Military dentists? Have thoughts about the broken engagement? Let us know! Send questions and comments to or leave us a review on iTunes! We can’t wait to hear from you!


To The Letter Episode 2: Building a Relationship


It’s here! After several technical difficulties, we’re so happy to release Episode 2 of the podcast: Building a Relationship. In this episode, we take a trip through 1942 to dive into the developing relationship between Joe Olexa and Agnes Van Der Weide.

To the Letter is a podcast brought to you in collaboration with University Libraries and the eLearning and Emerging Technologies Digital Studio. Joe Olexa is voiced by former theatre student Kevin McCasland. Special thanks to Archivist for Collection Management, Annie Benefiel, who makes a guest appearance to explain how we got these letters, what we’re doing to preserve them, and strategies to preserve your own family letters!

Letters featured in Episode 2 are available below:

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Letter to Agnes Van Der Weide, sent by Joe Olexa on May 8, 1942.

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Letter to Agnes Van Der Weide, sent by Joe Olexa on May 13, 1942.

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Letter to Agnes Van Der Weide, sent by Joe Olexa on May 16, 1942.

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Letter to Agnes Van Der Weide, sent by Joe Olexa on June 25, 1942.

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Letter to Agnes Van Der Weide, sent by Joe Olexa on July 11, 1942.

What do you think of the budding relationship between Joe and Agnes? Let us know! Send questions and comments to We can’t wait to hear from you!

To the Letter: Podcast Episode 1: An Introduction to the Letters

We’re so pleased to announce the launch of a new venture here at Special Collections and University Archives – a podcast! We’re trying something a little different, and we hope you will listen!

To the Letter is a podcast brought to you in collaboration with University Libraries, the eLearning and Emerging Technologies Department’s Digital Studio at GVSU, and a few talented GVSU students. On this podcast, we bring correspondence from GVSU’s Special Collections alive. In each episode you will hear (in their own words!) letters written by the people who lived through history and the stories behind them.

Join us as we dive into the story of a young soldier’s relationships and experiences during World War II…

Letters featured in Episode 1 are available below:



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Letter to Agnes Van Der Weide, sent by Joe Olexa on July 25, 1941.


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Letter to Agnes Van Der Weide, sent by Joe Olexa on August 23, 1941. 


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Letter to Agnes Van Der Weide, sent by Joe Olexa on September 1, 1941


Bonus! Joe’s note to the Postmaster, Dec. 5, 1943

Have you ever been to Whalom Park? Heard “Amen” as a name? Let us know! Send questions, comments, and feedback to We can’t wait to hear from you!

Summer through Art: The Mike McDonnell Papers

Various containers painted by Mike McDonnell.
Colorful Still Life, unidentified, by Mike McDonnell

Coming into the Grand Valley Special Collections and University Archives this summer, I had very little idea of what archivists actually did. As an English major, I had studied the wide range of career fields through studying abroad, teaching, and mentoring. However, my History minor remained untouched. As I hurtled toward my senior year here at Grand Valley, I began to wonder what kinds of job opportunities I could find with my minor and discovered archivist was among them. The first place I contacted was the Grand Valley Special Collections and University Archives and I am glad I did. Thanks to the Archivist for Collection Management, Annie Benefiel, I was able to get an overview of what the job of an archivist entails. Her passion and patience in mentoring me through every task, led me to have a greater understanding and appreciation for the important work archivists do.

In my first few days, I was given tasks to help preserve and promote just some of the documents Grand Valley has to offer. I began with transcribing and scanning letters from World War II, reliving the blossoming relationship of a young couple separated by the sea. Next, I tracked down papers for a researcher, sifting through an unfamiliar world of politics from committee meetings to luncheons, to letters about planning and numerous copies of speeches. Then came my biggest task: the papers of Mike McDonnell.

Mike McDonnell standing next to his art.
Mike McDonnell standing next to “House on a Stool” which currently graces the wall outside the Administration Office on the 4th floor of Mary Idema Pew Library at GVSU.

When I began working on the Mike McDonnell collection, I had no idea who this man was or what his story was. Through researching his own work, interviews, and photos, I feel like I’ve met a friend. In organizing and processing the collection, it became clear that Mike McDonnell was someone who understood that his life’s passion was to make art, it was as simple as that. In many of the newspaper articles I scanned, he said time and time again, that making art was never about money. He acknowledged he could make a respectable amount on a painting, but never had the idea of money in his mind. I believe he was interested in seeing how far his art could go. Whether it was a specific subject, or a certain style of painting, he was always experimenting and documenting those important artistic journeys.

Mike McDonnell with portrait of young woman.
Mike McDonnell with a portrait of a young woman behind him.

Though his interviews provided insight into his professional life, Mike McDonnell’s personal photos also revealed who he truly was. Looking through the pictures, you get the sense that he was hardworking, friendly, and goofy person who liked to hang out with his friends and farm animals. In the photographs donated to Grand Valley, his work can be seen lingering in the background or even taking center stage. His life was surrounded by art in various forms and his paintings, I believe, reflected that.

After getting up close and personal with his donated belongings, it becomes clear why this collection needed to be preserved. Mike McDonnell is a key figure in the history of Michigan painters. His attention to detail, the wide range of subjects he experiments with, and his precision through the medium of watercolor allowed me to appreciate the fact that Grand Valley has this collection, pieces of his work on display on its campuses, and that I was lucky enough to process this one of kind collection.

Mike McDonnell in his studio.
Mike McDonnell surrounded by his art.

Every Wednesday, I’d arrive on the Grand Valley Allendale Campus, go over to the Seidman House and get lost for the next four hours in paintings, receipts, slides, and photos all relating to Mike McDonnell and his work. I would walk out into the hot summer afternoon and think of how to see the world like an artist of his caliber would. Looking back at this summer, it has seemed to fly by in a sea of green folders and papers of all shapes, sizes, and ages, and I’ll miss it all. I’m so grateful to the Grand Valley Special Collections and Archives Department for taking me under their wing, allowing me to have been a part of processing this wonderful collection, and getting the grand tour of life as an archivist. It has been truly unforgettable.

Andrea Bazan

The Mike McDonnell papers (RHC-120) were given to GVSU Special Collections & University Archives in May 2017 in conjunction with a gift of McDonnell’s art to the GVSU Art Gallery. The materials are available for research use in the reading room in Seidman House.


Class of 1967 50th Reunion

Welcome to Seidman House IceSculpture Exhibit2

On June 24th, Grand Valley State University welcomed back members of its first graduating class. Members of the Class of 1967 returned to campus over the weekend to celebrate the anniversary of their graduation 50  years ago.

The Class of 1967 took a chance on the “college in the cornfields.” The 138 students who made up the class (including “pioneer” members who enrolled in the very first year, rather than transferring in later) knew a very different campus from today’s. While the Great Lakes Plaza remains a central academic hub, the size and scope of campus has greatly expanded.

As part of the weekend’s festivities, Special Collections and University Archives toured groups of the alumni through Seidman House.

Archivist for Collection Management, Annie Benefiel, displayed notable items from our collections, while Archivist for Public Services and Community Engagement, Leigh Rupinski, showed them an exhibit of 1960s photographs and documents.

Alumni were particular interested in the changes to Seidman House itself. Back in 1967, Seidman House was the “Collegiate Center”. It served as a student union, complete with bookstore downstairs. Although the “pit” (where performers like Arlo Guthrie entertained student crowds) remains, its primary purpose now is as a quiet study space for students. Instead of a bookstore, the downstairs houses our climate-controlled stacks.

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In the evening, staff attended the “Hootenanny” (party), where we manned a table of 1960s memorabilia drawn from the Archives. Items included yearbooks, student handbooks, the 1967 Commencement program, and course catalogs. Alumni eagerly flipped through memory books to help us identify unnamed faces in our photograph records.

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We were thrilled to be a part of the Reunion festivities!

Michigan Mysteries

Our Michigan in the Novel collection contains books from nearly every genre of fiction. Some of our favorites are the mysteries. These tales are all set in Michigan locales, from the back woods to the big cities. Here we’ve listed just a few, but our collection contains hundreds of thrillers, chillers, and whodunits.

The Spiritualists and Detectives (1877)

Allan Pinkerton was a Scottish-American immigrant who gained recognition and notoriety as a detective and spy. During the Civil War, he organized the Union’s Secret Service to protect President Lincoln. Pinkerton published a series of detective books, ostensibly based on his real-life cases. The Spiritualists and Detectives contains a number of different crime stories, some of them set in Michigan locales like Kalamazoo and Detroit.

The Spiritualists and Detectives, Allan Pinkerton. New York: G.W. Carleton & Co., 1877

The Case of Doctor Horace (1907)

John Harcourt Prentis published this mystery drama, set in Detroit and Ann Arbor, about two men who fake a murder to test a theory that a criminal can be caught through the operation of his own guilty conscience.

The Case of Doctor Horace: A Study of the Importance of Conscience in the Detection of Crime, John H. Prentis. New York: Baker & Taylor Co., 1907

The Phantom Violin (1934)

Roy J. Snell wrote over 80 novels, including mystery series for boys and girls. The Phantom Violin, set on Isle Royale in Lake Superior, involves three girls who spend a summer living on a shipwreck and hunting for treasure.

The Phantom Violin, Roy J. Snell. Chicago: The Reilly & Lee Co., 1934

Exit Screaming (1942)

Christopher Hale was the pseudonym of Frances Moyer Ross Stevens (1895-1948), who worked as an advertising copywriter in Cincinnati and Detroit. Her mystery series featured the recurring character Lieutenant Bill French of the Michigan State Police. In Exit Screaming, Lt. French is called in to investigate the murder of an eccentric woman in the small town of “Avondale.”

Exit Screaming, Christopher Hale. New York: Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1942

Anatomy of a Murder (1958)

John D. Voelker, an attorney and eventual Michigan Supreme Court Justice, drew on his vast experience with and love of the law to achieve success as an author, writing under the pen name Robert Traver. His best-selling courtroom drama and mystery Anatomy of a Murder was based on a real-life murder case in Big Bay, Michigan. The book was adapted into a movie in 1959 produced by Columbia Pictures, and starred Jimmy Stewart, Lee Remick, and George C. Scott.

Anatomy of a Murder, Robert Traver. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1958

The Make-Believe Man (1963)

Elizabeth Fenwick wrote over a dozen novels from the 1940s to the 1970s. In The Make-Believe Man, a thriller set in Detroit and Dearborn, a woman and her eleven year old son are terrorized while staying at her mother’s house.

The Make-Believe Man, Elizabeth Fenwick. New York: Harper & Row, 1963

The Glass Highway (1983)

Loren Estleman crafted a popular mystery series featuring the character Amos Walker, a Detroit private investigator. In The Glass Highway, Walker is hired to find the missing son of a local television anchor and finds himself embroiled in a case involving drug dealers, corrupt cops, and hit men.

The Glass Highway, Loren D. Estleman. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1983

The Dead of Winter (1995)

Like Christopher Hale (Frances M. R. Stevens), Paula Gosling also worked as an advertising copywriter before finding success as a crime novelist. The Dead of Winter is set in Blackwater Bay, Michigan during a local ice festival, and unravels the mystery linking a dead high school student, a missing chemistry teacher, and a drug dealer.

The Dead of Winter, Paula Gosling. London: Little, Brown & Co. 1995



Beasecker, Robert, “Michigan in the Novel 1816 – 2006: An Annotated Bibliography, Second Edition, Revised and Corrected” (2013). Books and Contributions to Books. 6.

“Biographical Notes.” Accessed April 4, 2017.

“Gadetection / Hale, Christopher.” Accessed April 4, 2017.,%20Christopher.

“John D(onaldson) Voelker.” In Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2003. Literature Resource Center (accessed April 4, 2017).

“Loren D. Estleman.” In Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2016. Literature Resource Center (accessed April 4, 2017).

“Paula Gosling.” In Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2008. Literature Resource Center (accessed April 4, 2017).

Perkins, George B., Barbara Perkins, and Phillip Leininger. “Pinkerton, Allan (1819-1884).” In Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia of American Literature, 848. Vol. 1. New York: HarperCollins, 1991. Literature Resource Center (accessed April 4, 2017).

Innovations in Learning: College IV

College IV logo

In September of 1973 Grand Valley State Colleges (as it was then known) opened College IV. College IV was so named because it was the fourth college in GVSC’s cluster concept, joining the College of Arts & Sciences, Thomas Jefferson College, and William James College. College IV sought to create a barrier-free approach to higher education. According to the 1973-1974 catalog, “College IV has thrown away the lecture platform and class schedule, freed the student and the professor from the drudgery of fact-passing, and engaged them both as partners in the learning process”.

In College IV, instruction was delivered via “auto-instructional learning modules”. These portable information packets all followed the same format. They included a clear objective, a detailed study guide, and a self-assessment test for students to check their readiness for the final test. Additional tapes or films could be checked out of the A-V Center to supplement the readings. Some modules were conducted as telecourses such as “The Art of Being Human”. Each module was designed to be completed at the student’s own pace in order to encourage full-time workers, parents, and retirees to enroll. To pass, students had to demonstrate mastery over the subject. Only a 90% or “A” grade allowed students to pass–anything less meant restudy and a new final exam.

A student browses College IV module booklets

Since there was no traditional classroom setting in College IV’s design, faculty were expected to be available throughout the day to work with students and answer questions.

Although envisioned as a four-year liberal arts college, College IV had both degree-seeking and non-degree options to emphasize job preparation. The majors included options like biology, chemistry, economics, English language and literature, mathematics, and philosophy. Later on, additional choices such as tourism, real estate and insurance, and advertising and PR were added.

Brochures for the courses of study in College IV
Areas of study listed in a publicity brochure (after College IV’s name changed to Kirkhof College)

Aside from its innovative curricular model, College IV also sought to meet students where it was most convenient for them. Students interested in enrolling in College IV could register and pay tuition via the “Mobile Campus”. The mobile unit visited area business, factories, and shopping malls on a regular basis. After registering, students could select modules, receive counseling, and take tests at the Mobile Campus.

College IV’s home on campus was in AuSable Hall. There, students had a study space as well as a laboratory and learning and testing center. Impressed by College IV’s practicality and dedication to reaching non-traditional students, local inventor and businessman Russel H. Kirkhof donated $1 million to Grand Valley in 1978. College IV was renamed Kirkhof College in his honor.

The University Archives contains administrative records related to College IV as well as numerous samples of the learning modules.

The Alabastine Company


The Alabastine Company, founded in 1879, produced a variety of paint products from the gypsum that was mined from the shale beds abundant in the area surrounding Grand Rapids, Michigan. Though the company was founded in New York, it derived its name from its largest gypsum quarry near the town of Wyoming, just south of Grand Rapids.

Alabastine color sample brochure, 1925
Alabastine color sample brochure, 1925

It’s earliest product, a dry pigment wall paint, was marketed as a “sanitary” and “hygienic” alternative to more traditional wall coverings of the day, such as lead-based paints, whitewash, and wallpaper.

Alabastine Home Color Book

The company advertised broadly in magazines such as Ladies Home Journal, the Delineator, and House Beautiful, and created colorful advertisements, catalogs, and other promotional materials.

Alabastine Stencil Catalog

The company was in business until about 1948 when it failed due to mismanagement. More information about the Alabastine Company can be found online at Antique Home Style and

School-Pak Alabastine Art Paint Kit

These items, along with other Alabstine Company odds and ends, can be found within the Special Collections in Seidman House.