Harry C. "Curley" Byrd is one of Maryland's most famous--and infamous--figures, yet he has remained one of its least known. Many view him as the father of the modern University of Maryland, although others, before and after Byrd's death in 1971, have painted him as a personal and political bully. Support for either position seems to be plentiful and has depended largely on a loose combination of anecdote, political invective and legend.
This lack of a detailed and accessible record has finally been addressed, thanks to a bequest by Byrd's son Sterling. When Sterling Byrd died in 1995, he left 50 boxes of material to the university archives.
The Sterling Byrd Collection is massive--thousands of documents, clippings, memorabilia and photographs requiring 41 single-spaced pages to list. The items help to illuminate Curley Byrd's enormously full life, as a student, semipro baseball player, football coach, husband, father, Moose, Mason, university president and political candidate.
Receiving, cataloguing and indexing this enormous pile of material has been the work of Anne S.K. Turkos, university archivist, and three graduate students, Jennifer Evans, James Fort and Adina Wachman.
Though sorting through 50 boxes of disorganized materials might seem tedious, Evans says that "this one was fun. We're used to getting boxes full of only one thing--papers, or documents, or letters--but this collection has a little bit of everything."
"How many students rise to become president of their own institution?" Turkos asks, and indeed, this is a central appeal of the collection for university curators and archivists. A 1908 graduate of the Maryland Agricultural College (later University of Maryland) in civil engineering, Byrd went on to become known, appropriately, as a builder--of enrollment, of budgets, of buildings. Between the time of Byrd's appointment as university vice president in the '20s and his resignation in 1954, the university's take of the state budget more than quadrupled to $4.5 million, and enrollment jumped from less than 2,000 to more than 15,000.
The collection is full of personal memorabilia reflecting Byrd's academic life, from his graduation gown and mortarboard to his sterling silver George V desk caddy, an item of "considerable value," made in London and inscribed "from the grateful people of Maryland." Another box contains Byrd's manual typewriter, a shining black Underwood 11; it remains in great shape, according to Evans, "for all of the letters he tip-tapped out." Photographs abound, as well: Byrd running track; Byrd looking over the campus's central lawn; Byrd at university functions, usually chatting or dancing with any number of young women.
One of the most interesting items here is a 1941 book entitled "Curley Byrd Catches the Worm," by Bob Considine, a writer for the Saturday Evening Post. Considine writes in reverential tones about Byrd's towering presence, describing him as the "dictator, president, athletic director, football coach, comptroller, chief lobbyist and glamour boy supreme" of the University of Maryland. The tales of Byrd lobbying the legislature in Annapolis are legendary, Turkos says. He was known to go for "days at a stretch without sleeping" and also to call legislators in the middle of the night to badger them about budget increases.
The collection also provides evidence of Byrd's busy life away from the university. His involvement with fraternal organizations is well-represented by a black plumed Knights Templar hat, festooned with the customary red cross, and a group of oversize gold-wrapped city keys from his time traveling the country as a "supreme governor" in the Moose lodge. There are letters to and from political luminaries including Franklin D. Roosevelt, Robert Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson and Hubert H. Humphrey. A Democrat himself, Byrd didn't limit his associations to one side of the aisle; other memorabilia include a signed photograph of Byrd and Spiro T. Agnew and an invitation to the 1953 wedding of Ronald Reagan and Nancy Davis.
"Curley is the most-hated and most-beloved man in Maryland," writes Considine, and the collection reflects both sentiments. Byrd was dogged by questions about his ample income during his tenure at the university, and he was also known for his frequent involvement in auto accidents (and, apparently, for occasionally leaving the scene). Byrd's unsuccessful campaigns for political office add to his aura of controversy. His loss to Theodore R. McKeldin in the 1954 Maryland gubernatorial race, for example, was widely ascribed to his strong segregationist platform; it isn't yet clear, however, how much of this platform was party politics and how much personal belief. Turkos hopes the collection might aid in answering such questions.
Sifting through the materials in the collection, a sense emerges of a figure from another time, when committees were less influential, when a single person's vision could dominate an institution as large as the University of Maryland. Turkos and other archivists are preparing to more publicly memorialize this influence, and by the end of 2001, they plan to use portions of the Byrd collection to create a permanent, museum-style exhibit across campus, at the university's Hornbake Library.
Until then, though, the collection sits in its 50 boxes, indexed and ready for further perusal by archivists, students, and interested members of the public. Turkos views these materials not only as a rare and important opportunity to view curios and gather information, but finally, to more completely assess Byrd himself. "There needs to be an honest appraisal of Curley Byrd, the man," Turkos says, "and this collection is our best chance yet."
The Sterling Byrd Collection is located in the Maryland Room, on the third floor of the McKeldin Library at the University of Maryland, University Boulevard and Adelphi Road, College Park. Hours of operation are Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., except for certain university holidays. Visitors must undergo an identification and interview process; papers and items must be viewed under the supervision of university curators. The Maryland Room is at 301-405-9058.
CAPTION: Photos of Harry C. "Curley" Byrd at the University of Maryland include ones as a student, football captain (1907), football coach (1912), assistant to the president (1928) and college president.