Danielle Moran ’15 (Berkeley Heights, N.J.) loves studying history, law, and politics. She’s helping construct an oral history of a Lafayette graduate who left important legacies in all three.
Robert Meyner ’30, governor of New Jersey during the 1950s, is the subject of the history, on which Moran is collaborating with John Kincaid, Meyner Professor of Government and Public Service and director of the Meyner Center, and Diane Shaw, College archivist and director of Special Collections.
The estates of Meyner and his wife, Helen, a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives, provided an endowment to fund Lafayette’s Robert B. and Helen S. Meyner Center for the Study of State and Local Government. Since 1994, the Meyner Center has educated students about the vital importance of state and local governments and encouraged young people to participate in state and local affairs as volunteers, interns, and future leaders. The center also works with state and local government officials and civic groups in the Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York region to enhance governance, regional cooperation, and public policy.
Moran, a double major in history and government & law, became interested in the project after spending the fall semester completing a History Department internship with Shaw in Skillman Library, where she studied the papers of Helen Meyner. Meyner wrote “diary letters” to her family while serving as a Red Cross field worker in Japan and Korea from 1950 to 1952. Moran discovered this material while writing her archival research paper in the History Department’s methods course, The Politics and Practice of History. The lengthy, lively letters mince no words as she observes America’s newly desegregated armed forces. In a blog about what it was like to study the letters, Moran calls Helen Meyner “extremely ahead of her time.”
“I loved reading a firsthand perspective on the Korean War, especially in Helen’s brutally honest and open letters,” says Moran.
For the oral history of Robert Meyner, Moran, Kincaid, and Shaw are interviewing those who worked with the former governor. Funded by a grant from the Loyola Foundation, the team has talked with another former New Jersey governor, Brendan Byrne, as well as Lawrence Houstoun ’52, who worked with Meyner.
“In an oral history, you’re really collecting data from the recollections of people who were involved,” says Kincaid. “They can often give you insight into the character of the historical person, insight into why they made the decisions they made. They can tell you stories.”
During the interviews, former governor Byrne remarked on Meyner’s legacy as the first governor to serve under the state constitution adopted by New Jersey in 1949. The constitution allotted more power to the governor, so how Meyner used it would set important precedents. Byrne said Meyner cut down on corruption in New Jersey’s government and revitalized the public’s view of the Democratic Party.
Meanwhile, Houstoun saw Meyner as an early environmentalist, since the governor strove to set aside lands for conservation and to protect rivers and streams.
Moran’s job was to research Meyner and the interviewees in order to construct well-informed questions. The experience allowed her to see firsthand the personal nature of oral histories.
“Governor Byrne not only gave insight into a personal relationship with Meyner, he included anecdotes about playing tennis at the White House with President Reagan and his friendship with Jimmy Carter,” she says.
The project has also given her insights into her own career pursuits.
“I plan to go into politics and/or law, so having the opportunity to talk with someone like Governor Byrne, who excelled in both fields, was very valuable,” she says.
“In many ways Danielle reminds me of Helen Meyner—exceptionally personable, bright, quick, funny, and fearless,” says Shaw. “She has been an excellent research assistant and it has been a pleasure to have her in Special Collections this past year and to have her involvement in this oral history project.”