Curious college collections
Famous manuscripts, artwork, music boost the profile of state's campuses

By LaReeca Rucker

In file cabinets and boxes, manila folders and vaults at Mississippi colleges, you'll find well-known folks tucked away for safe keeping, like John Grisham and B.B. King, Salvador Dali and even Curious George, who's been monkeying around The University of Southern Mississippi since 1966.

They are part of college collections, some of which contain rare, irreplaceable, priceless materials that attract visitors from all over the world.

USM watches over the collection of H. A. and Margret Rey, authors of Curious George, in the McCain Library and Archives.

"Dr. Lena de Grummond, who founded the children's literature collection, wrote H.A. Rey, as she did many authors and illustrators, to see if he might donate some dummies, editorial notes, illustrations or storyboards - anything that had to do with publishing," says Ellen H. Ruffin, curator of the library's de Grummond Children's Literature Collection. "So, in 1966, he drew a picture of George with a signpost pointing to Hattiesburg and sent her the illustration."

H.A. Rey died in 1977, and Margret Rey decided USM would look after Curious George. After her death in 1996, George became part of the de Grummond collection.

The Rey collection contains complete sets of original drawings, color separations for six Curious George titles and sketches for a seventh. It also includes first edition George books and correspondence between the Reys and de Grummond.

USM now has material from about 1,200 authors and illustrators and more than 100,000 children's books.

"The scope and content of this collection is enormous," Ruffin says.

The collection is funded by the library, she says. The university received two National Endowment for the Humanities grants worth more than $100,000 in the past to help preserve and maintain the collection. However, the value of the collection cannot be estimated, she says.

"There is no way we could begin to estimate the value of this collection," she says. "It's irreplaceable. It continues to grow, and the further we go into the technological age, the more value our collection has.

"We have the only children's collections in the area, and we are a research collection, so a lot of scholars, authors and illustrators who are interested in children's literature come and access our materials."

The University of Mississippi's Blues Archive is one of the largest collections of blues recordings and memorabilia in the world.

"We have more than 50,000 song recordings," says Greg Johnson, assistant professor and curator of the archive that includes B.B. King's personal record collection.

"We have around 8,000 albums that we got from him in the early 1980s," Johnson says. "There's lots of blues music and jazz, but there's also about 50 foreign language courses on LP. King said when he went on his first world tour, he wanted to say 'thank you' in the native language of the country he was performing in." King's record collection was valued at more than $50,000 in the 1980s.

The John D. Williams Library at Ole Miss is probably best known for its William Faulkner collection.

The university owns the New Albany native's home, Rowan Oak, and many of his literary materials, including The Rowan Oak papers.

Jennifer Ford, who oversees the literary collections, says the university and private donations have helped fund the upkeep of its literary collections.

Though she could not estimate the monetary value of the literary collections, Ford says the Faulkner collection is one of the university's most valuable. "Our collections attract scholars and the general public from all over the U. S. and the world."

The king of the legal thriller has his own room at Mississippi State University.

Mattie Sink, manuscripts coordinator for the Special Collections Department at MSU Libraries, says author John Grisham began donating his papers in 1989, just after writing his first novel, A Time to Kill. Correspondence, fan mail and manuscripts are housed in the library's John Grisham Room, a 1998 gift from the writer and his wife, Renee.

"We have people internationally who come to see the room, and we've had some interested in using the papers too," she says. "We have also recently added the Grisham International Collection, a large collection of John Grisham titles published in some 26 foreign languages. These international books are available in multiple copies for loan to individuals through the Library's Interlibrary Loan service."

Sink says the value of the Grisham collection is unknown because it hasn't been appraised.

Jackson State University is home to the Margaret Walker Alexander National Research Center. Many materials document the life and works of Alexander, a Birmingham native and former JSU professor, who wrote the poem For My People and the book Jubilee.

The center also houses the Roderick R. Paige collection. The Monticello native and JSU graduate was the seventh U.S. secretary of education.

Tougaloo College is known for its prestigious art collection, founded in 1963 by a group of prominent New York artists, curators and critics. It includes one of the nation's most extensive collections of artistic materials documenting the civil rights movement.

The collection, valued at about $10 million, includes an etching called Horseman by surrealist painter Salvador Dali and three Picasso lithographs called Le Grande Illusion, Exposition Valley and an untitled work.

"Our art is a collection that people all over Mississippi and around should come to see," says professor Johnnie Mayberry-Gilbert, chairman of the art department. "We should have a building where it is accessible to them, but unfortunately a majority of those works are in storage."

Tougaloo held an auction last year to raise money for a building to house the art collection.

"It's a vision," Mayberry-Gilbert says, "so we can set up a museum/art education center."

Pam Kinsey, secretary of the Mississippi College Department of Art, says several works by Dali are also part of The Dr. Jasper McPhail Collection, donated by McPhail and his wife, Dorothy. McPhail, a MC alumnus, is a cardiovascular surgeon who taught around the world before retiring in Clinton.

"In the years that he taught in Europe and India, he collected these works with the intention of donating them to Mississippi College," Kinsey says. "His collection is primarily European artists and prints."

The 1964 Dali painting is called Gloria vultus Moysi, or The Glory of Moses' Face.

"It is one of 105 illustrations of the 'Sacra Biblia' commissioned by Dali's friend and patron Giuseppe Albaretto to illustrate the Bible," Kinsey says. "It took six years to complete the series, which was created from 1963 to 1969. Albaretto's intention in convincing Dali to accept the commission was to lead the artist to God."

Kinsey says the college does not receive any grant funding to support the collection, but it plans future applications.

"We should be proud of the remarkable blend of local, national and global flavors the collections of our universities provide," she says. "Here they are, right in our own backyard."