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editor's essay

Entwined Histories

 Samuel Capen at his desk in Hayes Hall

Samuel Capen at his desk in Hayes Hall, c. 1930.

As I was putting together a timeline for the College of Arts and Sciences centennial for this issue, I was startled to realize how much of it, as a 35-year UB employee, I had experienced personally. In theory, this should have made it easier, as I could pull out moments of the College’s history I had covered for various campus media, including this magazine. I soon realized it wasn’t so easy, however, as news releases and my own published reporting collided with hazy memories and impressions.

I was reminded of this experience, strangely enough, after seeing the movie “Saving Mr. Banks,” with its back story about the making of the 1964 Walt Disney classic “Mary Poppins.” How illuminating, yet jarring, to see the fictional English governess interpreted in light of author P.L. Travers’ own anguished childhood. Even stranger was to realize that one’s lived experience—watching this confectionary tale with my grandmother and siblings at Shea’s Buffalo (then a movie theater)—is now part of a historical tableau. Observations like these come more frequently with age, but that doesn’t make them any less unsettling.

At the same time, there’s something wondrous about being able to look at historical events that align with one’s life. I’ve been thinking of my family and their interconnections with UB’s College of Arts and Sciences over several decades. My father was one of those returning World War II veterans who took advantage of the GI Bill to earn a bachelor’s in history and a law degree from UB. My parents met through UB when my father’s law school classmate, Thomas D. Perry (later professor of philosophy here), introduced his sister to my dad at his wedding. My brother Mike followed a similar academic route, obtaining history and law degrees at UB during the 1980s. And this year, Mike’s youngest son, Billy, is a UB freshman pursuing a history major with hopes of carving out a career in sports media.

I have no doubt that UB’s breadth of opportunity will give Billy the flexibility to organize almost any course of study he wishes. The only requirements, as the legendary UB chancellor Samuel Capen made clear to students back in the 1940-41 student handbook, are individual application and commitment. “The University offers you the opportunity for a rich life and a useful one,” Capen wrote in his letter displayed in a recent centennial exhibition for the College. “But it does not make you take the opportunity. Whether you will or not is for you to say.” My father once told me he saw Capen walking around campus. So with this slim connection, I feel justified invoking his words as possible inspiration for my nephew.

And just as I now view “Mary Poppins” with an adult’s understanding, I can look at the College of Arts and Sciences—so important to my own family—as part of my personal history to savor and reflect upon, as it is for so many of you with similar stories of lifelong UB allegiances.

Ann Whitcher Gentzke, Editor