Elaine “Penny” Harrison, 1924-2016
WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections lost a valued former colleague with the May 6, 2016 death of Elaine “Penny” Harrison.
According to her family, it was while watching a movie that the young Elaine Maher and two childhood friends decided to assume the names of the film’s three heroines. Thus was born Elaine’s lifelong nickname, “Penny.”
A Connecticut native, Penny met WKU alumnus Lowell H. Harrison while working at New York University. After they married in 1948, she followed him to London on his Fulbright Scholarship, then to Texas, where Dr. Harrison taught at West Texas State University and Penny earned a master’s degree in history. In 1967, Dr. Harrison returned to Bowling Green to teach at his alma mater and Penny joined the Kentucky Library (now part of the Department of Library Special Collections), where she served as manuscripts librarian until her retirement in 1986.
While at WKU, Penny earned a master’s degree in library science, completed special studies in archives at the University of Wisconsin, and developed a manual for processing manuscript collections at the Kentucky Library. The first treasurer and archivist for the Kentucky Council on Archives, she was honored with a KCA fellowship in 1987 to recognize her outstanding contributions to the profession. Special Collections Librarian Sue Lynn McDaniel says that Penny also enjoyed mentoring students in her field. In fact, McDaniel recalls, “she gave me the career/education advice that allowed me to become her successor as Manuscripts Librarian at WKU.”
Penny and Lowell Harrison (who died in 2011) also gave generously to WKU and the Kentucky Library. Acknowledging their financial support for collection development, then-Special Collections Department Head Riley Handy told them simply: “We have no better friends than you.”
Lowell Harrison; Jewish memorial at Bergen-Belsen (Wikimedia Commons)
This week marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Arriving on April 15, 1945, British troops surveyed a landscape of unspeakable suffering and cruelty.
Kentuckians serving in Europe at the end of the war were among many eyewitnesses to the atrocities perpetrated in the camps. Their experiences are documented in some of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives holdings of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.
WKU history professor and Russell County native Lowell Harrison was serving as a combat engineer when his division arrived at the concentration camp at Nordhausen, in the heart of Germany. “It was something that was unbelievable,” he recalled. “You see pictures. . . , you read about it, but you couldn’t believe that people could be treated that way until you actually saw them.” Richardsville native William R. Hudson, drafted after the Nazi surrender and sent to Germany to serve with occupation forces, was exposed to German atrocities when he was appointed to guard war criminals, including Hermann Goering. It was then that he witnessed the evil infrastructure of the Holocaust: railroad cars, gas chambers, crematoria, and the bones of victims “stacked up like haystacks.”
Soldiers struggled to convey their experiences to incredulous civilians. Writing from Germany in May 1945, Bowling Green native Harry L. Jackson reacted sharply when his sister complained of being inundated with “atrocity propaganda.” “I HAVE seen more than enough,” he assured her, to know that the reports were not exaggerated. But trying to describe to her the sight of a German slave labor camp, with its stench, filth, and starving inmates reduced to “the basic instincts of the animal” was beyond his capacity. While man’s power to degrade and destroy seemed boundless, “our inadequacy and limitations surface,” he declared, “when we are asked to define what WAR really is. It cannot be put into words.”
Click on the links to access finding aids to these collections (contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org about the Harry Jackson Collection). For more collections on World War II in Germany and beyond, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.
Lowell Harrison as soldier and teacher
When Russell County native and retired WKU history professor Lowell H. Harrison died on October 12, he left behind a distinguished record of teaching and scholarship, having written or edited some 15 books, published more than 100 articles and authored hundreds of book reviews. Like many WKU faculty, staff and students, he also left behind an honorable record of military service. During World War II, Harrison trained at Fort Knox, Kentucky and Camp Carson, Colorado, and served overseas as a combat engineer with the 104th Division.
In common with many of his fellow WKU students, Harrison kept up a wartime correspondence with classmates and teachers back on the Hill. His letters, saved by their recipients and now housed in several collections in WKU’s Special Collections Library, show that the rigors of military service never dampened his dry wit or dulled his intellectual curiosity. In August 1944, Harrison sent student Dorthie Hall a photograph of himself in combat-ready pose with the identification, “I’m the one supported by the rifle.” In language that hinted at the narrative skill he would display as a historian, he also told Dorthie about his visit to the Colorado town of Cripple Creek. “The hills are dotted with dark tunnels which belched impossibly rich gold ore only a half century ago,” he wrote. “The town boomed, and the world’s greatest poker game saw stakes totaling over a million.” Eventually, “the flow of ore became a thin trickle as the source vanished.” Residents departed, and “as the years fled by, the drifts of winter snow slipped through more and more open doors and gaping windows,” leaving the town to reinvent itself and “cater to the tourist trade, undisturbed by the ghosts of old prospectors who pick away at promising formations at the ghost town of Cripple Creek.”
Read Lowell Harrison’s World War II letters in the Dorthie A. Hall Collection, the Frances Richards Collection, and the Gabrielle Robertson Collection at WKU’s Special Collections Library. Click on the collection names to download finding aids. To find more collections of war letters (from the Civil War through Iraq and Afghanistan), search TopScholar and KenCat.