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February 2006
Volume 1, Number 2

The Crile Archives:
From a Closet to a Center for History Education

James Banks and Al Zavar

Crile archivesHistorical Background
In the Spring of 1944, the U.S. War Department opened Crile General Hospital on a 150-acre campus in the village of Parma, Ohio. It would be one of 60 such general hospitals in “the zone of the interior.” The hospital was named in honor of General George Washington Crile (1864-1943), a pioneering surgeon and officer in the Army Medical Corps. General Crile took the first American surgical team to France during World War I. Upon returning from war and as a result of these experiences, he and three colleagues founded the now world famous Cleveland Clinic.   

At the close of World War II, the General Hospital became a Veterans Administration Hospital.  In its 30-year tenure, the facility would prove to be very versatile. Naturally, as a hospital it served thousands of wounded and disabled veterans. But in the later years of the war, the grounds also securely guarded 300 German prisoners of war. Then in response to the Cold War of the 1950s the expansive facility was called upon to add a Nike missile complex as part of the defense perimeter for Cleveland. The site continuously operated as a V.A. Hospital until 1964.   

For the next two years, the Crile V.A. Hospital was abandoned; however, in fall 1966, the dormant complex was granted a new lease on life when county, state, and federal agencies negotiated a new use. Soon the newly designated Western Campus of Cuyahoga Community College was filled with 3,000 students, some of whom had been patients at the hospital. The campus maintained its barracks atmosphere until 1975, when the current facility completely replaced the last remaining Crile buildings. This ended 30 years of nearly continuous service for what was designed to be a “temporary” facility.

During the transitional nine-year period (1966-75), the collection and preservation of the deserted maps, books, literature, photographs, manuscripts, artifacts, and memorabilia of its prior life was initiated. The site’s connection to its military and medical past would be assured. These are the humble beginnings of a legacy that has come to be known as the Crile Archives and Center for History Education.

Archival storageAn Archive at Work
What began as a student project to document the creation of a World War II hospital through the use of “locally stored materials” inaugurated the educational essence of the archive. This initiative grew into a special-topics course on World War II in 1994. The result was the dedication of a seven-ton granite memorial and garden honoring all veterans. The unveiling of the Veterans Memorial paid tribute to veterans from World War I through the Gulf Storm as students gave witness to and read profiles of seven service men and women.

In 1995, Cuyahoga Community College and the Crile Archives were recognized by the Department of Defense as an “official commemorative site” honoring the veterans of World War II.  Subsequently, the Crile Archives became an official partner of the Veterans History Project, endorsed by National History Day, and the American Ex-Prisoners of War.

Capitalizing on its distinctive history and using documents, artifacts, and photographs from the Crile collection, several video productions were launched. A grant from the Cleveland Clinic Foundation funded the video "Battle Scars", which tells the history of combat medicine and the contributions of General Crile. Introduced by the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, it includes interviews with the first patient admitted to the hospital, as well as other former patients, nurses, and community volunteers. Other video documentaries examine the 30th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge and the 25th anniversary of the Kent State shootings. These two productions aired on the History Channel in its series “history on campus.”

The current video project, “Healing Others Healing Ourselves,” the history of the African-American nurse, traces the role of Black nurses from the Civil War to current graduates of Tri-C’s nursing program. The video includes rare archival footage and nationally known pioneers in the history of Black nurses. It was shown on PBS affiliates throughout the state of Ohio, and is awaiting a network screening.

In 1998-1999, as result of a growing community awareness, the Ohio chapter of the American Ex-Prisoners of War sought approval to place a memorial on campus honoring all POWs. This request grew into a special-topics course titled “Barbed Wire History,” pairing 24 students with a like number of former prisoners of war. The POW memorial dedication was followed by a reunion of students and their veterans at the premiere of the video production, Barbed Wire Brotherhood, introduced by U.S. Senator John McCain of Arizona. A video clip can be seen on the Crile Archives website at http://www.crile-archives.org.

public memorilsWith or Without Walls
The creation of the Crile Archives website in 2001 expanded the reach of the collection both nationally and internationally. Early in 2003, researchers from an aviation crash site museum in Germany, while researching downed flyers from World War II, discovered wreckage from a B-17 flown by a pilot from Cleveland, Ohio. They contacted the Crile Archives and, as a result, several pieces of the wreckage along with documents from locals who witnessed the crash in 1944 were recently returned to the pilot’s widow, and are now part of the Crile collection. The pilot had been a POW and received treatment at Crile Hospital after the war.

More recently, students from Jonesboro, Georgia, on an assignment to interview a former prisoner of war, found their way to the website. Several students called the Crile office and were put in touch with area POWs who were more than willing to accommodate these students.

The appearance of the traveling Dignity Vietnam Memorial Wall Experience in 2004 was the turning point in relocating the Crile collection to a publicly accessible and secure location in the campus library. The Wall was made possible by a collaboration of area businesses, the cities of Parma and Parma Heights, community volunteers, and over fifty veteran’s organizations. Billed as Veterans Appreciation Weekend, the series of programs attracted over 8,000 visitors.

The most recent undertaking is a year-long initiative with the Cuyahoga County Public Library (CCPL) in a film/discussion series on World War I that continues through May 2006. CCPL, in partnership with Cuyahoga Community College’s Crile Archives, was one of only twenty-five libraries nationwide to receive a funding grant jointly sponsored by the American Library Association, National Endowment for the Humanities, and National Video Resources to send staff to a two-day workshop to meet the lead scholar of the series. The schedule of events can be seen at http://www.cuyahogalibrary.org.  The Crile Archives produced brief video interviews with two surviving World War I veterans, ages 103 and 106, to introduce the premier film series.
A Broader Context
The vision of the Crile Archives is to develop a presence in the community by making its collection of resources part of a dynamic outreach program which encourages students, teachers, veterans, and the public to touch, share, and appreciate the rich history and service of those who answered the call of the nation. In that context, the following annual events are now part of the Cuyahoga Community College calendar:

  • A seminar on selected topics brings nationally known scholars to the campus for public lectures and a half-day workshop for area social studies and history teachers.
  • A POW recognition program, including an archive open house and luncheon, connect students and veterans in an intergenerational setting.
  • A Veterans Day ceremony and program occur on the workday preceding Veterans Day since the college is always closed in observance of the holiday.

The institutional commitment to the Crile Archives and Center for History Education has fostered and supported a broader vision. Last September, the new facility held its grand opening and dedication ceremony. The archive has established an Advisory Board; hired support personnel including an archivist, a part-time assistant, and an intern; and formulated a five-year plan to establish a stand-alone building on the campus. Planning is under way for a program to support the 40th anniversary of the opening of CCC’s Western Campus, which will rely heavily on the collective memory of the archive.

Finding Their Way Home
As a result of the archives’ new location, the growing community partnerships, and the positive public reception, donations of documents and artifacts have increased substantially. As recently as January 12, 2006, a World War II prisoner of war donated all of his personal documents, prison records, and artifacts including an original flag from Wake Island, Red Cross cigarettes still untouched, letters from home, and photos of many of those who did not survive. As an 18-year-old civilian employee, he was taken prisoner from Wake Island two days before Christmas in 1941. He was imprisoned by the Japanese for 44 months, in what can only be described as hellish conditions.

In the two-hour, emotionally revealing conversation that accompanied the transition of these belongings, each one laden with personal anguish, it ultimately became therapeutic for the veteran as he shared their significance. It was a profoundly gratifying experience to know that these dozens of artifacts will tell the story of one man’s triumph over death and degradation that no book or movie can match. These items and their provenance stand as a testament of courage as they fulfill the mantra of the Crile Archives: from healing to learning.   

James Banks is Professor Emeritus and Director, Crile Archives and Center for History Education, and Al Zavar is Campus Director, Technology Learning Center, Library, and Learning Resources Center at the Western Campus of Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, Ohio.

Photographs by Bill Fogarty, Learning Resources, and Maureen Gray O'Shea, Photographer, Cuyahoga Community College. The authors wish to acknowledge the support of Jerry Sue Thornton, President, and Frank Reis, recently retired Executive Vice President for Administration, Cuyahoga Community College, in making the Crile Archives and Center for History Education possible.

Cynthia Wilson, Editor