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New College History Takes Readers Down Memory Lane

February 24, 2014

“My greatest satisfaction in writing this book with Dave is that it has enabled me to remind those already acquainted with Alma College, and to tell those who aren’t, what a great place this really is.” — Gordon Beld

Did you know? A favorite pastime at Alma College in the 1920s was canoeing the Pine River. The students — the men in sport coats and ties and the ladies in fancy dresses — would truck to the village of Sumner and then leisurely float back toward Alma, pausing for a picnic lunch on the riverbank.

Did you know? Alma College, in the midst of a financial crisis, was close to shutting down in 1942. Prominent alumnus and Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox came to the rescue when he approved Alma as a location of the government’s V-12 training for Navy and Marine officers.

Did you know? While student demonstrations and violence erupted on many college and university campuses during the Vietnam conflict, students and faculty at Alma met on the campus mall on Campus Day 1970 to conduct a civilized exchange of opinions about the war.

These and other stories are featured in a new book by authors Gordon Beld and David McMacken: A History of Alma College: Where Plaid and Pride Prevail.

From left: Gordon Beld, Dave McMackenFrom left: Gordon Beld, Dave McMacken

“Any institution, especially a college, deserves to have a new written popular history from time to time,” says McMacken, a mid-Michigan historian and retired high school English teacher. “Any written history that ends with the present time becomes at once history itself. Other Alma College histories have been written, but this includes events from the past as well as more recent events, changes, and accomplishments, and it quite simply brings things up to date.”

For Beld, the college’s chief public relations officer from 1965 through 1989, the project was a labor of love.

“My greatest satisfaction in writing this book with Dave is that it has enabled me to remind those already acquainted with Alma College, and to tell those who aren’t, what a great place this really is,” he says. “ It’s a college that has not only an amazing past but also an impressive present, and a promising future. It’s my hope that sharing some of the stories of its past will encourage others to join the ranks and contribute to further successes that years from now will form the basis of another history of Alma.

McMacken and Beld began their friendship and book collaboration in June 2013. They were frequent visitors to the Alma College library archives, reading college catalogs, yearbooks, old copies of the Almanian, scrapbooks of clippings and artifacts, and much more.

“The memories of events and of news stories I wrote and photographs that I took during the 24 years I was a member of the Alma staff helped to trigger ideas for content,” says Beld. “Then, at the college archives, I’d find sources in the files of my news releases, photos and negatives, and publications — especially the magazine, Alma College Perspective; a newsletter, Alma College Report; and a tabloid, the original Accents.

Two individuals stand out in McMacken’s mind as defining leaders in Alma College history.

“I’m impressed by the actual founding of the college by Ammi W. Wright in giving the first two buildings, giving Wright Hall a few years later, and for about 25 years financially supporting the college to get it on its feet,” says McMacken. “Without Wright, Alma College would not exist today.

“The hiring of Robert Swanson as president when the college needed a visionary and ‘cool dude’ saved the institution from death,” he adds. “Gordon, I’m sure, agrees, as he wrote a chapter and tribute about Swanny. Swanson was the right man at the right place at the right time. He deserves immense credit for the survival and growth of Alma College.”

The book, available for purchase at College Corner Coffee & Books, includes 23 chapters detailing the college’s founding and early years and subsequent campus growth, curriculum changes, Greek life, social traditions, town-gown relationships, the annual Highland Festival, and many stories about Alma students who reached out and made a difference at home and around the world.