The Filson’s volunteers find their way to us through a variety of ways. It might be a lecture they attended, a book they read, or an interest in Kentucky history. But whatever the reason, they bring a set of experiences and talent with them to us that can be used to help The Filson fulfill its mission.
Professor Laurence A. Carr is someone who has taken his interest in history and research and helped The Filson for almost ten years. Larry is a native of Michigan who joined the University of Louisville Medical School faculty in 1969 with the ink on his Ph.D. in Pharmacology still damp. Over the next 32 years, Larry taught, conducted research, and served as an associate dean. Larry’s research focus was biochemical neuropharmacology. Summer vacations as a child and then with his own family – wife Jeanne and children Alan and Rachel – often involved visiting historic sites, especially Civil War battlefields. Supplementing this field experience with occasional continuing education classes (Larry took my Lewis and Clark course in the mid-1990s), lectures, and reading, Larry contemplated what he might want to do after he retired. While knowing that his hobbies of family genealogy, stamp collecting, and building balsa wood models of World War II era planes would be enjoyable, Larry wanted to combine his interest in history with research through volunteer work. This led him to The Filson. A trial run at cataloging historical manuscripts in the summer of 2001confirmed for him that this would be something he would enjoy. Since the fall of 2001 Larry has been faithfully coming in two days a week (with the occasional vacation, holiday break, and beating a couple of bouts of cancer). At the end of 2009, the number of collections (some small, even single item accessions; others large, multi-box collections) Larry had cataloged stood at 183. Civil War collections are a particular favorite. Larry’s thorough, detailed approach to his work – just like his days in the laboratory and classroom – have allowed many collections to be made accessible to researchers that otherwise wouldn’t have been.
Anyone working with collections will have their favorites. In reflecting back on the almost 200 collections he has done, Civil War material was foremost in Larry’s memory. Two large collections of Civil War patriotic envelopes, almost completely pro-Union, topped Larry’s list. Such material was an effective propaganda tool; “simultaneously humorous and shocking,” as Larry recalls. Sleuthing out the identity of the writer of a letter from 1866 containing strong, anti-African American comments proved quite exciting when the writer turned out to be Jesse Grant, father of General Ulysses S. Grant. Lt. William Pirtle’s memoir of his service in the 7th Kentucky Infantry, CSA, was engrossing and Larry credits it with probably establishing his continuing interest in Civil War collections. But Larry doesn’t dine on a complete Civil War diet. Romance and courtship were as much a part of society in days past as they are today. The advantage to historians is that letters played a much bigger role then in the courtship process and consequently better documents it. Thus we have letters written to Rowland Railey, the “Romeo of Southern Kentucky.” He dabbled in romance as well as legal work, oil exploration, and marketing medicinal herbs – all for the benefit of himself. He placed ads in newspapers across the country asking women to correspond with him. Those ladies responding clearly believed Railey had romance and marriage in mind. This went on for years, but he never actually took the marital plunge. And these are just a few of the more memorable collections that come to Larry’s mind. Immersing yourself in the letters and diaries of people from years past is like stepping back in time. “You really get wrapped up in their lives,” Larry says, “and when tragedy or hardship strikes, it can really affect you.”
When helping us achieve our mission becomes a mission for the volunteer, we all benefit. “Volunteering here at The Filson has lived up to everything I wanted to do in retirement if not more so,” Larry states in reflecting on the experience. That’s what we like to hear! His hard work and talents are very much appreciated; and he and other loyal volunteers really become a part of the Filson family and team. Our thanks to Larry Carr and we congratulate him on reaching 183. Now it’s onward to 200!
Next in our volunteer spotlight: long time volunteer Joan Rapp.