That’s History: Preserving the Past for Texas A&M’s Future
Retired director of the Cushing Library and Texas A&M University archivist, David Chapman ‘67, spent his professional career preserving the truth about Texas A&M’s past. In retirement, he’s investing in Texas A&M’s future.
Story by Rachel Knight ’18
Photos courtesy of David Chapman and Cushing Memorial Library & Archives, Texas A&M University
There’s a building in the heart of campus that’s played an influential role at Texas A&M University since it was built in 1930. While its timeless ornamental style is exquisite and alluring, the secret to its value lies in what’s kept inside—the truth about Texas A&M University’s past. Cushing Memorial Library is a true campus treasure, and the same can be said about David Chapman ‘67, retired director of the Cushing Library and Texas A&M University archivist. Chapman dedicated his professional career to archiving Texas A&M history, and continues to support the collection and interpretation of history today through the Dr. David L. Chapman ‘67 Graduate Fellowship. This fellowship helps fund the education of future historians and archivists.
Chapman said one of his greatest career achievements was helping to restore Cushing Library. He conducted a lot of research on the project, determined to restore the building as much as possible to the original form. Prior to the restoration, the library had been used for many different purposes, and the wear and tear had taken a toll. “It was a wreck of a building inside,” Chapman recalled. “It had been used for several different things, and they’d done all kinds of damage to the building. There was paint and plaster coming off the ceiling; the grand staircase had been taken out, which sadly could not be replaced; and it was just a mess.”
Chapman’s job on the project was to find things like photographs, descriptions, and drawings of the building to determine the original architecture that had been chipped away over time. Thanks to Chapman’s work, some parts of the building were replicated exactly the way they were originally built—with the help of students who became part of the building’s history by selflessly serving. One such example is the ornate ceiling in the reading room.
“The ceiling in the reading room was photographed inch-by-inch, and you could tell from the stenciling what it used to look like,” Chapman explained. “From the photographs, a company out of Houston produced new stencils. Then after they cleaned off the old paint and put back the plaster, student volunteers went back in with the photographs and the reproduced stencils to restore the ceiling exactly the way it was done when it was originally built.”
Like the students who stenciled the ceiling in the Cushing Memorial Library reading room, Chapman took part in preserving campus history when he was a student. After serving in the Navy for four years, Chapman returned to campus to finish the master’s degree in history he’d already started. Before he left, he’d worked as a graduate assistant. Upon his return, Chapman needed some income, but all of the graduate assistant jobs were full. That turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
“I got a student worker job in the archives under Dr. Charles Schultz,” Chapman said. “When I began my Ph.D., I started moving up the ranks in the archives. Every time there was a new job, I was around with my hand out. So I just kept moving up until I eventually became the university archivist. After a while, I took the directorship of the Cushing Library, which we had refurbished. As you’d say, that’s history.”
In retirement, Chapman has supported the university in a different way. He gives back to the university by supporting history graduate students. He said the decision to establish the Dr. David L. Chapman ‘67 Graduate Fellowship was an easy one.
“I remembered what it was like to be a graduate student,” Chapman shared. “Sometimes it’s hard to make ends meet. I fund fellowships to graduate students in the history department to help them along and to help Texas A&M attract the best graduate students possible.”
Chapman knows the importance of graduate students to academic programs, because he spent his career working at Texas A&M. The College of Liberal Arts works hard to get the best faculty; Chapman considers his role as a donor to attract the best graduate students possible to help support the program.
The collection and interpretation of our history is so important to Chapman that he added more funding to the fellowship in 2018. He said he intends to make a third contribution to the endowment in the near future to make the graduate program even stronger.
“It’s important to collect and accurately interpret our past,” Chapman said. “We need the best people in the world to do that. It is very important to record our history; otherwise, people will make up mythology about it.”
Chapman spent his career searching for artifacts that revealed the truth about the past. Occasionally, this meant he quashed mythologies or campusologies. One such myth is that the Coke Building, which was built in 1951, was originally a white brick building. According to the myth, the white bricks that were sold to Texas A&M by a Longhorn started turning a reddish-pink color similar to burnt orange after a couple of years, making it the ultimate rivalry prank. Chapman says this fun tale is simply not true. The bricks were intended to be the reddish-pink color they are today, because in some ways they harken back to the cherry-red brick of the early campus buildings.
Throughout Chapman’s career, he got to know the university by getting to know its history. He learned the truth about buildings, people, programs, failures, triumphs, good times, and challenges. Drawing from this knowledge, Chapman said he believes Texas A&M will come through the trials of COVID-19 well.
“It’s not the perfect example, but you can look back at the so-called Spanish Flu of 1917, 1918, and 1919,” Chapman said. “It did not look good for the school, but Texas A&M surmounted it, it passed, and we moved on, and we are all the better in a way. This too shall pass.”
In his retirement, Chapman has not stopped uncovering the truth and sharing what he learned. During a trip to Europe, Chapman visited cemeteries where he knew Aggies who served in World Wars I and II were buried. As he walked through the graves, he realized he didn’t know which soldiers were Aggies. He began researching Aggies who served in the wars and were buried or memorialized overseas. His work led to a list published in a Texas A&M University Press book titled, The Book of Aggie Lists: Texas A&M University’s Military Heritage, edited by James R. Woodall. Through this book, Aggie history comes alive through soldiers’ photos, biographies, and information about their careers at Texas A&M and beyond.
This book also helps people pay their respects to these fallen Aggies overseas. While visiting Europe after the book was published, Chapman and his family put three flags on each Aggie’s grave: an American flag, a Texas flag, and a Texas A&M flag. Other Aggies have used the lists in similar ways. In fact, President Young has even used this list while leading a group of Aggies to place flags on the graves at Normandy.
Chapman says the work of archivists and historians is never done. There are endless truths waiting to be collected, recorded, and interpreted, but it takes good scholars to do so accurately. Thanks to his endowment supporting graduate students, Chapman will play a role in the accurate recording of our history for many generations to come.
“It’s money well-spent to provide for future scholars,” Chapman shared. “This country needs scholars. We need people to provide guidance and to separate the knowledge from the mythology. It’s really important for us as a country to know the truth and to know what’s going on here. History goes toward critical thinking, and that’s so important.”
Fact or Fiction: Texas A&M Edition
How well do you know your Texas A&M University history? Find out here by playing a Texas A&M fact or fiction game, or by answering the questions and reading the correct answers listed below!
- All of the buildings on campus were originally white with copper roofs, just like the Academic Building.
False. The original buildings on campus were a red brick similar to the Coke Building’s color.
- After beating the University of Texas 13 to zero in a football game, a Texas A&M student branded the University of Texas’ mascot “13-0.” The University of Texas re-named their mascot Bevo after altering the brand to make the 13 a B the dash an E and squeezing in a tiny V between the E and 0.
False. A Texas A&M student did brand the University of Texas’ mascot “13-0;” however, the mascot was already named Bevo according to University of Texas records published before the game.
- Of the 1,000 Aggies who were killed in World War II, about 200 are buried or memorialized overseas.
True! You can learn more about these Aggies in a book published by the Texas A&M University Press titled The Book of Aggie Lists: Texas A&M University’s Military Heritage.
- The bricks used to build the original buildings on campus were made with clay extracted from behind where the president’s house sits today.
True! The divot behind the president’s house is believed to have been made when they extracted clay to build the original buildings on campus.
- Military Walk lost its importance after the Corp dorms moved away from that part of campus. President Gates decided to restore Military Walk after realizing it must have been important at one time while running on campus one evening.
True! David Chapman ‘67 was the university’s archivist at that time. He served on the committee that worked to restore Military Walk to its former glory. Learn more about him in the article titled “That’s History: Preserving the Past for Texas A&M’s Future.”
- Cushing Memorial Library is named after Colonel Edward B. “E.B.” Cushing ‘80, who was a great Civil War general.
False. Cushing worked for the Southern Pacific Railroads, eventually achieving the post of Superintendent of Maintenance and Way of the Sunset line between New Orleans and El Paso. In 1909, the governor of Louisiana awarded him the rank of colonel for his extensive work with the Southern Pacific Railroad and the Houston Light Guards.
- Sbisa Dining Hall is named after Texas A&M’s steward of subsistence from 1877 to 1911, Bernard Sbisa. His name is pronounced “suh-beez-suh.”
False. The dining hall is in fact named after Bernard Sbisa, but students have been pronouncing his name wrong for years, according to the university’s archives. The proper way to pronounce the former steward of subsistence’s name is “speez-uh.”
- Cushing Memorial Library has a complete collection of The Longhorn.
True! Cushing Memorial Library can help you put faces to names of former students, because it has a complete collection of the university’s yearbook, which was called The Longhorn from 1903 to 1948.
- Cushing Memorial Library’s namesake was appointed president of Texas A&M University’s board of directors in 1912. After the mess hall and Old Main burned down on campus, Texas legislators wanted to move Texas A&M’s cadets to Austin and make them a branch of the University of Texas. Cushing prevented this from happening and guaranteed $87,000 of vendor bills to help the college keep going.
True! Those who give to the Texas A&M Foundation today follow Cushing’s example and help keep the university going for today’s students.
- Cushing and Chapman both led by example by supporting Texas A&M University with their generosity.
True! Cushing’s gift was an immediate impact gift. It was used immediately to help support the university. Many donors give immediate impact gifts in the form of $1,000 scholarships today. Chapman’s gift is an endowment. Only the earnings from the endowment are used each year, which means Chapman’s generosity will continue to support history at Texas A&M for many generations to come. Contact Larry Walker at email@example.com or Andrew Millar at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more about how you can selflessly serve Aggies, too.