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A Historian at Heart

by Lara Zielin

In 1969, a young high school teacher by the name of Frank Wilhelme thought he might make history more exciting to his Dexter, Michigan, students by having them study primary source materials on the city’s history. So he traveled down to Ann Arbor to what was then referred to as the Michigan Historical Collections and showed his students a host of materials in the basement of the Rackham Building, including old phone books, photos, maps, and census records.

The Michigan Historical Collections would later move to U-M’s North Campus and become the Bentley Historical Library. And Wilhelme would move too, advancing in his career to become the director of the Historical Society of Michigan and the assistant dean for development and alumni relations at U-M’s Ross School of Business—among many other professional accomplishments. But at his core he would remain a historian, acquiring collections and researching topics to ensure hands-on access for the next generation of researchers and historians.

“We are all challenged to navigate an increasingly mobile and connected society,” Wilhelme says. “One aspect of this challenge is for us to discover for ourselves a sense of place and a historical context for our lives. Through its collections and outreach, the Bentley facilitates this process of discovery.”

Wilhelme and his wife, Judy, who was a librarian at the University of Michigan for more than 40 years, have close ties with former Bentley director Fran Blouin as well as former director Robert Warner (1925-2004). That strong connection would lead the Wilhelmes to support the Bentley financially with a planned gift to the Robert M. and Jane B. Warner Memorial Fund, which provides for the Bentley’s most pressing needs.

“I feel part of [the Bentley] family,” says Wilhelme. “I feel strongly about the importance of the Bentley preserving the history of the state of Michigan and U-M.”

Wilhelme has also spearheaded several material donations to the Bentley, including files from the Ross School’s development office. “I’d been at the [Ross School] for 30 years, so I became the keeper of the development office’s history. I invited Fran [Blouin] over to look at the files to give his opinion on whether he wanted them.” In the end, 13 boxes of material came to the Bentley, where it was processed and today is part of Ross School of Business records collection.

Wilhelme was also instrumental in helping acquire materials from Glenn Ruggles, an award-winning oral historian from Walled Lake, Michigan, whose collection includes audio recordings and photographs. And both Wilhelmes helped the Bentley acquire the papers of Judy’s ancestors contained in the Birney Family Collection, which features material on the Birney, McClear, and Hankerd families, who were Irish immigrant settlers in Ingham County, Michigan.

The Wilhelmes are retired these days, but the special intersection of fundraising and history has led Frank Wilhelme to serve as a volunteer fundraising strategist for the Bentley. “It’s something I enjoy doing in retirement,” he says. “I have treasured our association with the Bentley Library over these many years.  I am happy to assist the Library staff and volunteers in their efforts to secure important resources. In addition, Judy and I are delighted to provide our own financial support to advance the Bentley’s important work.”

Lead Image: Frank Wilhelme (center) and wife Judy (right) helped secure the collection of Michigan oral historian Glenn Ruggles (left), whose audio recordings and photographs can now be found at the Bentley.