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Connecting to Special Collections

As an archivist, I'm a firm believer in the idea that every archive has something for every person to connect with. Whether it's a key to their research, or a photograph that stirs emotions, there's something for everyone. It just so happens that my "something" in the archive was more personal than most.

As I found myself at my desk on my first day of work at Pepperdine in 2015, I began browsing our digital collections. I clicked on the collection "Korean War Photography of Hanson A. Williams" because I remember seeing something about an exhibit curated with the images from this collection and how striking they were.

When I started browsing the collection, I noticed that the photographer, Hanson Williams, had been in basic training at the same base, at the same time as my grandfather. I clicked through the photographs from basic training, one after another, after another. I searched the faces of the men, looking for a hint of Papa. He had to be there somewhere. I had no idea how many soldiers were in basic training at Ford Ord during that time, but I figured that he must have crossed paths with Hanson.

My searching became more frantic the more photographs I looked through. Maybe he wasn't here, maybe I'd get to the end, having wasted the past hour for nothing. Then I saw it. What caught my eye about the photograph was how it was framed. In the foreground, the backs of two men standing side-by-side. Framed between them are five men in line, looking down at their hands, with two men on a raised ledge behind them, passing something to the soldiers.

Image of soldiers opening letters


And there he was, the fourth in line. My Papa. It was a profile shot of him, but I knew that it had to be him. I excitedly texted a copy of the photo to my mom, asking if she would confirm with Papa that it was indeed him. A few hours later I had my response. My gut reaction was right, and what was better, the photo came with a story.

When my mom had shown Papa the photograph, he responded that it was taken while the men were in line for food. It was in this line every day that soldiers were handed their mail. One fateful day in this line, my grandfather's life would be forever changed, as he opened a letter from his wife and read:

"Johnny, I believe you're going to be a daddy and I'm going to be a mommy."

Image of letter and envelope


His response:

"Dearest Ginger: Hi Sweetheart- Well I received your letter today honey & there's nothing that could have made me happier & prouder than to think you may give me a child."

Image of letter and envelope


And that child was my mother.

We don't have a date on that photograph, and we'll never truly know if it was on that day, in that line, that my grandfather found out that my mom was on the way. But I still think that photograph, held forever in an archive that prior to my hiring, my family had no connection to, is an important piece of my history.

We strive every day to help members of our community have similar experience in our archives. Whether a student in a class who has come to special collections for a session, a former local resident looking up family history in our Malibu Historical Collections, or a researcher looking for the perfect key to their story, we hope to help you find something that will connect you to our collections. For more on how to start your own research in special collections, check out our new guide on virtual special collections.