Longtime Joliet Junior College History Professor Robert Sterling is an expert in JJC history, and throughout his more than 40-year career at the college, he’s obtained a collection of more than 2,521 JJC artifacts – including many old photographs, documents and other memorabilia.
Today, those artifacts are a part of the recently donated “Robert Sterling Collection” in the JJC Archives, located on the Main Campus at the JJC Library, 1215 Houbolt Road in Joliet.
For years, Sterling tried to start a JJC archive himself, but with no luck. An archive wasn’t officially established at the college until 2012, after Librarian and Associate Professor Andrew Lenaghan proposed the idea of putting JJC’s yearbooks and Wordeater publications online.
After the online archive began, Lenaghan started forming a tangible one. He immediately thought of contacting Sterling, because he knew he had photographs from the book he’d written for the college’s centennial, called “Joliet Junior College: A Pictorial History of America’s Oldest Public Community College.”
Sterling, who still teaches two online history courses at JJC, moved to Colorado a few years ago with his wife to be closer to their grandchildren. When he got the call from Lenaghan, he was thrilled.
“I was pleasantly surprised when Andrew contacted me, and when I found out about the archive, it’d been what I was hoping for for years,” he said. “Now I knew I had a safe place to put everything.”
Now that the campus has an archive, Sterling hopes former students, community members, employees and others will donate their own JJC memorabilia to the archive as well, so that scholars and the general public can have as much access as possible to the college’s history. Joliet Junior College is the nation’s first community college, founded in 1901.
Sterling’s collection includes original copies of commencement ceremony programs; an intact copy of the “First Report,” a publication that chronicles the planning, building, dedication and implementation of the high school in downtown Joliet; the minutes for the first JJC student government meeting in 1929; tuition receipts from the 1930s; and hundreds of photographs illustrating JJC’s 113-year history, from its humble beginnings as an attachment to Joliet Township High School to its new home on Houbolt Road.
According to Lenaghan, 30 percent of the JJC Archives are comprised of items from Sterling’s collection. Lenaghan plans to eventually digitize most of Sterling’s artifacts, but right now, he’s in the process of chronologically organizing the memorabilia, so that it can be put on display in the library as early as next semester.
“We were so excited that Dr. Sterling made this donation to the college,” Lenaghan said. “Before the Sterling Collection, the archive was just made up of the yearbooks, the Wordeater, oral histories, and board minutes. There were no photographs or anything to fill in the gaps. Now we have so much more. These documents are invaluable to anyone researching the history of Joliet Junior College and its relationship locally to the Joliet community and nationally to the development of higher education in America.”
In addition to scholarly research, Lenaghan said people come in to view the archives for genealogy and JJC class projects.
Though collecting JJC artifacts has given Sterling quite a legacy at JJC, when he was a new professor at the college in the late 1960s, he pictured his future much differently.
Because he was the newest, non-tenured history teacher, Sterling was chosen to teach a class that nobody else wanted: local history.
“At the time, I was getting my doctorate in Civil War history, and I thought: local history – how boring can that be? I wasn’t too crazy about teaching that class initially,” Sterling, now 72, said. “And I quickly discovered a problem, too. There really wasn’t much available to use to teach the class.”
So, Sterling turned to an approach made popular by well-known historian Studs Terkel – oral history. For homework, Sterling asked his students to set up recorded interviews with elderly residents who could tell them about their experiences growing up in the Joliet region. When the students came back, they would transcribe the interviews and place them into booklets for others to read. Sterling’s students, essentially, became recorders and compilers of the area’s history.
The class was still in its experimental stage when something changed for Sterling – and it all started out with a box of photographs.
“One day, one of my students came back from an interview with a box of pictures. The woman he’d been interviewing thought I might be interested in looking at her old photographs – photos she had saved of the Joliet area and JJC, when she was a student at the college,” Sterling said. “When I looked at those photographs, I was hooked. I had a friend who helped me make copies of these pictures. And so I began telling my students to see if they could borrow any old pictures when they went out on their interviews.”
Sterling’s local history class blossomed after that discovery: that’s when intrigue began to fuel his passion for teaching the class. Sterling found himself hunting for old photographs, historical pamphlets, yearbooks, and other memorabilia at garage sales, auctions and flea markets on the weekends.
But as quickly as Sterling had gotten himself into teaching the class, 10 years later it was cancelled – not because students didn’t enjoy the class, but because it became less popular due to the fact that it didn’t easily transfer to many four-year universities.
But Sterling never stopped thinking about how an old photograph he’d never seen before felt in his hands, or the excitement of finding an old JJC document after spending hours searching.
Sterling continued to teach history at JJC, and at this point carried the title of Department Chair. He was busy, but some of his friends who worked in JJC’s Maintenance Department never forgot his love of collecting the old documents. In fact, they helped keep Sterling’s passion alive.
“Some of the old college records were kept in cardboard boxes in the temporary buildings, which at this point were being phased out and used as storage. The roofs would leak often, though, and once the water from the leaks damaged the old college documents, they were supposed to be thrown out,” Sterling explained. “My friends in the maintenance area knew of my interest in the history of the college, so every now and then, when they were throwing those boxes away, they would come to my office and say, ‘Look at this stuff! I know you want to save this.’ ”
And the rest, essentially, is history.
For more information about the JJC Library Archives, or to make any memorabilia donations, contact the library’s front desk at 815-280-2665 or email@example.com. To view JJC’s digitized yearbooks and Wordeater publications, visit the Library Special Collections page at www.jjc.edu/info/library.