Christopher Callahan, president of University of the Pacific in Stockton, found long-lost campus archives about the history of Pacific when he discovered a steel vault hidden from view in the basement of Burns Tower. (Photo by Fred Greaves)

The Back Story: Hidden Treasures

University of the Pacific finds a missing link in its rich history: its birth papers

Back Article Nov 17, 2021 By Ed Goldman

This story is part of our November 2021 issue. To subscribe, click here.

Opening a vaunted vault at University of the Pacific — a cherished safe thought to contain untold historic riches about the origins of the 170-year-old Stockton-based institution — new president Christopher Callahan, who started in July 2020, wondered what he’d find.  

“I’d already discovered there’s history everywhere I look on this campus,” he says about his daily and nightly walks (the latter with his wife, Jean Callahan, and their golden retriever puppy, Cali) around the leafy, 175-acre expanse of Pacific’s Stockton campus. “But even the author of a definitive book on the place admitted he couldn’t lay his hands on materials about its founding,” he says. (That book is “Pacific on the Rise: The Story of California’s First University” by Philip N. Gilbertson.)

The 5-foot-tall steel safe was in a remote area of the basement of the Burns Tower, the iconic face of Pacific, and rediscovered in early 2021 during a renovation, says Mike Wurtz, an associate professor at Pacific and head of the university’s Holt-Atherton Special Collections and Archives. 

The Gothic tower was completed in 1963. “Robert Burns, then president of the university, had his office in the building,” Wurtz says. “This was his safe, and he kept what appear to be important papers and historic items he happened to be looking at which would normally have been in the archives. Burns died somewhat unexpectedly in 1971.”

Apparently, Wurtz says, “The safe was forgotten, or no one knew the combo, or whatever, after his death. I surmise that it may not have been open since 1971 since there are no papers — so far — that postdate 1971.” Current President Callahan found the safe and had it opened on March 26, 2021, almost 50 years to the day after Burns died.

“I’d already discovered there’s history everywhere I look on this campus.”

Christopher Callahan, President, University of the Pacific

Callahan says he was “beyond excited” when the very first item he saw as the safe was pried open by the Stockton Fire Department’s Jaws of Life — normally a hydraulic rescue tool for getting trapped people out of collision-mangled vehicles, but equally effective for opening safes and not destroying their contents in the process — were papers documenting the 1851 meeting when the founders of the university first agreed to move forward. 

For Callahan — a longtime journalist who, after turning to an academic career, helped establish the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University — the document find was a treasure. It was a collection of handwritten memos and minutes from 1851, the sort of thing a reporter might spend hours poring over in a quest for clarifying data for a story. There was also a diploma from 1862 printed on vellum, or animal skin.

The safe contained a collection of handwritten memos and minutes from 1851, a diploma from 1862 printed on vellum, and ancient Babylonian tablets. (Photo courtesy of University of the Pacific)

Oh, yeah. There were also ancient Babylonian tablets among the vault’s contents. But if you heard that and expected to see massive clay slates inscribed with Biblical writing, you might have laughed, if only at first, at the 2-inch-square mini-plaques that could have served as cocktail coasters for a sophisticated Stone Age family.  

“These are actually very cool,” says Wurtz. For a Zoom interview, Wurtz has carefully arrayed cartons and other containers on conference tables in a meeting room just outside his basement office. He’s as proud and enthusiastic as a schoolkid at show-and-tell, even saying at one point, “You’ll have to forgive me for saying ‘cool’ so often. We archivists can be an excitable group.”

Those 4,000-year-old Babylonian tablets are not only small, they also contain far from explosive data: “I think these are a butcher’s bill for a lamb and a goat,” he says.

The Holt-Atherton Special Collections and Archives

Curates (collects, preserves and makes available for research) about 5,000 linear feet of material

Assists about 1,000 researchers a year who walk in, call or email

Is responsible for a digital collection of items that receive about 75,000 downloads each year

Helps about 20-30 courses a year with archival instruction

Talks to community groups that usually equal about 350 people a year

The Holt-Atherton Special Collections and Archives

Curates (collects, preserves and makes available for research) about 5,000 linear feet of material

Assists about 1,000 researchers a year who walk in, call or email

Is responsible for a digital collection of items that receive about 75,000 downloads each year

Helps about 20-30 courses a year with archival instruction

Talks to community groups that usually equal about 350 people a year

“According to Alan Lenzi, professor in the Department of Religious Studies here at Pacific, and paperwork that came with the tablet, it is estimated to be made circa 2,100-2,000 B.C.,” Wurtz says.

But having it in Pacific’s historic collection — along with items like papers written by and about John Muir, the naturalist often called the “Father of the National Parks,” in the United States — is noteworthy to “students of archaeology, history, anthropology and even education itself,” Wurtz says.

Referring to the latter, both Wurtz and Callahan point out with some amusement that there’s been a long, mostly friendly debate between Santa Clara University and Pacific as to which was the first university in California — and, in fact, west of the Mississippi. “It’s somewhat semantical,” Callahan says. “We were the first institution of higher learning chartered by the state of California. We were founded as a university, but Santa Clara College admitted students before we did.”

All of this is documented in the university’s archives (which you can sample online at go.pacific.edu/archives). It is, to quote Wurtz, “very cool.”

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