Letters Home


Supported by a grant from the Cater Society of Junior Fellows, history major Sarah Graff ’18 has digitized a collection of letters from World War II soldiers — all former students at Washington College.

For most of us, history is viewed second- or third-hand, through books and movies.
Not so for Sarah Graff ’18, a history and drama major who works in the College Archives.  As she presents the College’s collection of World War II letters from “my boys,” she repeats the phrase “you can see” over and over. For you can see, and read, the thoughts sent from half a world away to a matron of Washington College. To Miss Doris Thistle Bell.
The letters are stored in the College Archives and Special Collections, which were formally established in Miller Library with its renovation in 2012. That’s where Graff takes you, to the basement of the library, the territory she shares with her boss, Archivist and Special Collections Librarian Heather K. Calloway.
“These are letters from Clayton McGran, who graduated with the class of 1948,” says Graff, carefully opening a pale green file folder. Inside, an inch-thick pile of cream-colored paper lies flat, the top sheet penned with line after neat line of navy blue script. “You can see ‘England, January 4, 1944,’” says Graff, gesturing with a clean hand. “Clayton was in the Air Force and was based in England during the war. You can see the lovely letterhead, embossed with the Air Force logo. …”
Graff’s soft voice is intense. Her blue eyes shine, but her smile is modest, until your own eyes light up and you exclaim at her cool treasures. Then Graff’s smile becomes a wide grin. You’re hooked. Good.
The missives were sent in response to a campus-wide campaign organized by Bell to keep the College in contact with the 700 or so students who were participating in the war effort. Graff found the letters during the spring of her freshman year. At the time, she was a member of StoryQuest Team Archives, working on the C.V. Starr Center’s Dr. Davy H. McCall World War II History Project. It brought her to the quiet banks of floor-to-ceiling shelves in the Archives, to a hitherto overlooked box where she began reading about the lives of students-turned-soldiers. By the end of the semester, she knew that’s what she wanted to do, study the letters and the people who wrote them.

In 2016, Graff was awarded a Douglass Cater Society grant to digitize the collection, research the writers at the Library of Congress, and participate in the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference, MARAC. She also won a Comegys Bight internship to work at the National Archives and Records Administration. Graff spent the summer in Washington, D.C., elbow deep in archival work. In November, she went to Annapolis to present her findings at MARAC. She says she babbled for 20 minutes. Witnesses report otherwise.

Arian Ravanbakhsh ’89 was the chair of Graff’s panel, “War on the Shore: Preserving the History of Maryland’s Eastern Shore.” They shared the dais with Calloway and with Leslie VanVeen McRoberts and Artura Jackson of Salisbury University. Calloway and McRoberts were to discuss how they engage students in their archives, and their students were to provide their perspective, highlighting their own projects.

Currently serving as the College’s Alumni Board Chair, Ravanbakhsh works as a supervisory records management policy analyst (“four adjectives and a noun in true federal bureaucratic fashion” he points out) at the National Archives. “My Washington College friends think I talk archives way too much and my archives friends think I talk about Washington College way too much,” he says. For the MARAC panel, Ravanbakhsh could do both. Jettisoning a coat and tie for his WC polo, he opened with a couple of War on the Shore jokes.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say WC beat Salisbury on that Saturday morning,” he reports. “As an archivist, it was just fabulous to hear about efforts in both institutions to bring students and the wider community into the archives and inspire people to learn about the history of great institutions.”

The panel was one of 20 sessions at the multi-day conference. Graff was the only undergraduate presenter among a pack of archivists from eight states. “While students represent a large portion of MARAC presenters and attendees,” Ravanbakhsh explains, “they all tend to be from library and archives graduate programs in the area. This is just another example of how Washington College students have opportunities to thrive in their chosen field to the point where they are doing graduate-level work at an undergraduate institution.”

It was a Cater grant that funded Graff’s work, and she’s fulfilled its intent by sharing her knowledge to build a “companionship of learning limited only by the imagination” on campus.

“I do think Sarah’s Cater-funded work has raised the profile of the Archives in the college community,” says Ravanbakhsh. “When you hear her speak about her work in the Archives, you can’t help but share in her excitement. And that’s contagious.”