Keeping a Legacy Alive

James Michener prepares for a 1941 pie-eating contest on the campus of what was then known as Colorado State College of Education.

Days before a ceremony commemorating the 40th anniversary of the dedication of UNC's James A. Michener library, a professor in the school's history program thinks it may be time to introduce the author and alumnus to a new generation of readers and make them aware of the impact UNC and the Greeley area had on him.

Michener attended what was then known as Colorado State College of Education from 1936-1937, earning a master's degree, and taught at the training school on campus from 1936-1941.

He returned to the area in the early 1970s to research and write Centennial, the best-selling novel that traces the history of the plains of northeast Colorado.

Today, most students on campus are more familiar with the 12-part TV miniseries that was adapted from the book.

UNC History Professor Michael Welsh's office was in the basement of Michener Library when, shortly before his death on Oct. 16, 1997, Michener designated UNC as the home of the bulk of his manuscripts, personal documents, notes and other items related to his writing and publishing legacy.

It was only natural that Welsh would be interested in learning more about the man famous for locale-focused novels based on detailed historical and cultural research. Welsh became a frequent visitor to the James A. Michener Special Collection, sifting through the author's writings, which included notebooks from his time at UNC as well as hand-edited manuscripts, including one for Centennial.

Those readings led to discussions with many of the people whose paths crossed Michener's in the late-1930s and when he returned to the area to research and write Centennial.

Among Welsh's many discoveries was that Michener had an insatiable appetite for learning.

"I couldn't get over just how wide-ranging his interests were, his tastes were, his curiosity was," Welsh said. "He was forever looking; forever questioning; forever thinking."

Talking with Michener, Welsh said, must have been like being interrogated because of the author's seemingly endless questions

"It was the Socratic method on steroids when he talked," Welsh said.

According to Welsh, Michener was extremely curious about the people, history and culture of everywhere he visited, which over 50 years of travel and 40 books included most countries of the world.

"But something happened to him here," Welsh says. "Colorado wasn't quite like other places."

Michener started capturing that uniqueness in a 10-page story outline he wrote before he left Greeley in 1941, but it wasn't until 30 years later, during planning for the United States Bicentennial celebration, that the outline would give birth to Centennial.

Michener, a member of the commission planning the celebration, argued that the group's goal of finding a new and different story to tell Americans about their country's early development wouldn't be accomplished by yet another story about a place where America began, such as Philadelphia.

Instead, he suggested that they find a story about a place where early Americans "went." A place where they had to adapt, re-create themselves, learn a new way of life and be changed in return. When asked where that place might be, Michener told them the story about his time at UNC in Greeley, in the northeast part of the Centennial State. The others liked his idea and Centennial was "born."

Welsh believes Michener's experiences at Colorado State College, where his duties as a faculty member and part-time administrator included traveling to towns such as Fort Morgan, Keota and Briggsdale to give high school commencement addresses or interview financial aid applicants, exposed him to the stories of the struggles and the successes of the adventurers, entrepreneurs and visionaries that played key and colorful roles in the area's and the state's settlement and development.

"He saw things here that stayed with him all his life," Welsh said of Michener's motivation to write Centennial. "He wanted to try to figure out what really mattered about us (Coloradoans). He wanted to figure out how the rest of America might benefit from knowing us."

- UNC News Service

Of Note
A celebration commemorating the 40th anniversary of the James A. Michener Library's naming and dedication will be held Nov. 2 in the library. More Information

Did You Know?

  • By the time he graduated from high school in 1925, Michener had visited 45 out of the 48 states.
  • Michener's first novel, Tales of the South Pacific, won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
  • In addition to research notes, maps, photographs and personal letters, UNC's Michener Collection includes his Olympia typewriter, his stained dentures and full, hand-edited manuscripts of Centennial, Poland, Space, Texas, and The Covenant, all of which reached No.1 on the New York Times best-seller list.
  • Michener was paid $600,000 to serve as script consultant for the 1966 film adaptation of his novel Hawaii.
  • Michener's books have sold an estimated 75 million copies worldwide.
  • Michener would sometimes spend 12-15 hours a day at his typewriter for weeks on end.



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