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Treasure in a Trash Can

By: Ardis E. Parshall - June 14, 2010

George Richard Stoll was born in Salt Lake City in 1935. He graduated from Salt Lake’s South High School in 1953 and, as many of us do, he saved a pristine copy of his graduation invitation, and a copy of the program showing that he was a seminary graduate.  He went on to the University of Utah where he took part in student dramatic productions, and naturally he clipped from the newspapers the reviews of plays he was in. Somewhere along the line, he got a blue cardboard shoebox, where he kept those mementos of his high school and college days. He didn’t graduate from the University until 1969, but when he did graduate he put his diploma with its brilliant red cover into the shoebox.

George didn’t finish his university degree on schedule in the 1950s because in 1955 he was called to serve as a missionary in the East German Mission, with headquarters at Berlin. His older brother Walter James was already serving as a missionary in that area, so when a newspaper published a story about the brothers serving together, of course that clipping went into the blue shoebox.

So did many other mission-related documents, important and trivial. There was the little pink tag that temple staff pin on the clothing of first-time temple patrons to signal someone who might need additional help. There was George’s letter from the First Presidency calling him to the mission, and his first letter from his mission president. There were copies of his mission farewell program. There was his elder’s certificate, signed by all three members of the First Presidency – there is evidence that George took special care of that certificate, because he put it in a folding plastic case that would protect it as he carried it in his inside jacket pocket. There was George’s recommend – in German – to attend the Swiss temple, and various papers to be shown to the East German police identifying him as a missionary and establishing his connection to the local mission home. Eventually, there were photographs – dozens of photographs – of George and his companions and their quarters and activities, but mainly of East German members of the Church, some of whom may have come safely through World War II and its aftermath, and all of whom would be cut off from regular contact with the Church in a few short years when the Berlin Wall went up and the mission was closed. George carefully wrote the names of the members, and their cities and the dates, on the backs of most of his photographs, and eventually his photo albums went into the blue shoebox along with the other mementos of his life.

Almost as soon as he came home from his mission, George was called to fill his military duty. Most of his time in the Army was spent in Japan – that seems to be where he picked up the pretty matchbox that ended up in the shoebox with his important papers, although what that matchbox meant to him is anybody’s guess. Other documents – some letters, and photographs, and the metal name plates from his military uniform – were also placed in the box.

Once he was out of the Army, George married and began to raise a family. The shoebox remained a treasure chest frozen in time, though – his 1969 university diploma was the last document to go into the box. Somebody put the box in an open-ended plastic bag, and the box probably went on a closet shelf or some other out-of-the-way place, where it remained for decades.

Don’t many of us have such a shoebox, or its equivalent?  Maybe we’re not organized enough to pull it all together in one place, but haven’t we all saved important documents, and mementos of our lives that we like to look through occasionally? Don’t we hope that our children and grandchildren might one day look through those papers and come to know us for the real lives we led, before we got old and became just “Grandpa”?

Strange things happen to those collections of personal papers, though. If they aren’t well organized, sometimes they get thrown out by accident. Sometimes they get thrown out deliberately when homes are emptied after somebody dies, and nobody thinks those old newspaper clippings have any value. They burn in house fires, they get put in basements that flood, they are stored in sheds where stray cats make their nests.

Sometimes they survive, but usually because somebody makes a special effort to guarantee that they survive. Somebody finds the one grandchild in the family who cares, and makes sure the papers get into the hands of that grandchild. Better still, some people donate their significant papers to libraries and archives, where the documents can be stored safely and made available to scholars and great-grandchildren and any other interested parties.

In the case of George Richard Stoll, who died in 1991, his shoebox remained on the closet shelf, or wherever it was stashed, until March of this year. Then the box was disturbed. Maybe the house was being sold, maybe somebody just went through a fit of housecleaning.

Nobody in the family, apparently, wanted to keep those papers that documented the youth of George Richard Stoll. But whoever had charge of them couldn’t bear to simply throw the box away as if it were trash. Noting that many of the documents had to do with George’s mission to East Germany, it occurred to someone that maybe the Church would be interested.

But after all those years – after George had carefully saved his papers, and taken special care of his elder’s certificate, and labeled his photographs – his papers were about to enter the riskiest moment of their existence. Somebody in the family – a young man, his name and relationship to George unknown to me – was tasked with bringing the shoebox to the Church History Library. That young man didn’t care about the documents. In fact, he appears to have been impatient, perhaps even resentful at his errand. He entered the library and addressed the first person he saw: the security guard on duty in the lobby.

As with many organizations, security guards at Church facilities are not allowed to accept packages from unknown people. The guard did what he was supposed to do: He immediately picked up the telephone and called the Acquisitions department, where someone on duty would come down to talk to the man, to accept the package and get the name and address of the donor. It would take only a few minutes – but that was too much for the impatient young man. Snatching up the plastic bag holding the blue shoebox, he angrily left the building. As he strode across the plaza – unseen by any librarian or archivist – he dropped the bag into a trash can and vanished. It’s pure conjecture, of course, but I imagine that if he was asked at home about his errand, he may have sarcastically answered, “Sure, Mom, I took it down to the library all right.”

So the papers, in their box, in the plastic bag, were now hidden in an outdoor trash can. Unseen by anyone, they lay there all day Monday. It rained Monday night, so of course rain ran into the unprotected trash can. The shoebox got wet … and because it was in a plastic bag, every drop of water that fell on the box pooled inside the bag. The photograph albums were wet first, their plastic pages curling and photographs on facing pages sticking fast to each other.

As the rain continued, George’s university diploma in its brilliant red cover got wet, and the dye from that cover began running onto documents below. That red-stained water got into the plastic cover of George’s elder’s certificate, and now the protective cover became a trap – the ink on the First Presidency’s signatures ran, and red rainwater soaked into the document in ugly streaks.

Tuesday was dry enough, but it rained again Tuesday night, and the damage to the documents became acute. That pristine copy of George’s high school graduation announcement got wet, and damp glue from the flap of the envelope caused  other documents to stick together. Newspaper clippings – always fragile at the best of times – became soaked, their fibers weakening and the paper turning to mush. And still, every drop that entered the plastic bag was held there, and George’s precious papers stewed another night in the red-stained water that covered nearly everything.

Wednesday morning I happened to be talking to the security guard, telling him some bit of trivia I had just learned, and in response he told me about the man who had come in on Monday with a shoebox of documents, who was too impatient to wait even a few minutes for someone to look at his donation. I shook my head along with the guard over the impatience of some people, and wondered what the library had missed out on because the young man would not wait.  Something about the way the guard described the man’s impatience nagged at me – he resented coming in, so obviously he didn’t value the documents; I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had dumped the stuff in the waste paper basket before he stormed out.

… Or after he stormed out?

Was it possible? If he had thrown his papers into a trash can, would they still be there? How often did the trash truck come around, anyway?  The guard and I looked at each other, then walked out to the plaza. I held my breath as I looked in the trash can … where I saw a blue shoebox filled with documents.

Then I held my breath for another reason as I fished the papers out of the trash and the guard helped me drain the standing water out of the plastic bag. The papers were already rotting, and the stench got worse as the papers were exposed to the air. Still, I carried them inside to see what they were. A library staffer – Juvenile Instructor blogger Ardis S., in fact – came with some paper to cover the library table as I spread the documents out. (Had I realized their condition, I wouldn’t have done that – I would have waited for an expert who wouldn’t have caused further damage by handling the fragile, wet papers. But I was curious, and I didn’t know any better.)

Ardis S. immediately called the Acquisitions department, and the Conservation lab – obviously, if these papers were valuable enough to be saved, they would have to be handled immediately. You could practically see – and smell – the mold growing as we looked at them.

The first person to recognize the papers’ value, though, was an archivist who happened to be walking through the library. When I told him these seemed to be mission papers and photographs from East Germany in the late 1950s, he knew, too, that they had to be taken care of immediately. One of the librarians came running with a library cart so that we could stack the documents on the shelves so that the wet papers wouldn’t tear under their own weight, and off we flew to the Conservation lab.

I have to tell you, the Conservation staffers are magicians. I wasn’t too surprised to see later that they had salvaged all the photographs in perfect condition – photographs are printed wet, after all, and stand up quite well to water. But I was amazed at how well they were able to wash off most of the red dye, all without washing out the ink on the documents themselves. They managed to save every document in that stinking, dye-soaked mass of disintegrating paper.

Oh, not that there isn’t damage, of course. The red dye on the elder’s certificate is only a pale pink now, but it’s there. The signatures of the First Presidency remain legible, but they are washed out to a shadow of what they once were. There is damage – tears and wrinkles and stains – to virtually every paper in the shoebox (which disintegrated to blue mush as I removed it from its bag), and the stink will probably never go away. But the documents can be read.

What stories they may tell remain for future study. I hope to track some of the East German members from the photographs and tell some of their stories, and I think I can put together an interesting post on the mission of George Richard Stoll.

But there was no need for his papers to come within moments of being destroyed forever – nor is there need for such a fate to await your important papers. If you – or your mother or your grandfather – have a stash of papers that have historical value, why leave them on the closet shelf and run the risk of their destruction at some vulnerable moment? Why not consider placing them in appropriate archives now, while they are still safe and while you are around to explain what they mean?

The Church is interested in documenting every aspect of Church history. If you have formal Church records in your possession (did your patriarch grandfather die without turning in his last stack of blessings? did your grandmother somehow end up with a volume of Relief Society minutes from her days as a secretary?), the Church needs those. If you have journals that reflect a particularly Mormon experience (your aunt’s mission? your own mission? the years when your father was a bishop?) they want those. If you have photographs and documents showing the beginning of the Church in some new corner of the world, you have a unique treasure. Did your father write a history of his time in the military where he tells about how he learned to rely on the Spirit or about the LDS servicemen’s groups he was a part of? That may be unique in the records of the Latter-day Saints.

The Church cannot preserve everything, of course, even if a Latter-day Saint was involved. If George Richard Stoll had saved papers only from his school days, the Church would probably suggest that those papers be offered to the library of the school he attended, rather than the Church archives. Sometimes local historical societies, or the Family History Library, might be a better fit.

If you’d like to talk to someone about whether your documents are of interest to the Church, you can call the Acquisitions department at 801-240-5696 or email them at churchhistoryacquisitions [at] ldschurch [dot] org. They’d love to hear from you … they’d especially like to have your papers now, in good condition, rather than later, when they’ve been fished out of the dye-stained soup of a garbage can.

Which reminds me – I have a copy of the published diary of an English politician who, long before he entered politics, went on a western adventure and ended up in Utah where he wrote about his encounters with Brigham Young. The library doesn’t have a copy of that, although they do try to collect every published work that intersects with Mormon history. I’ve been meaning to cart that book down to the library and make another donation of my own.

I will. This week.

How about you?



16 Comments »

  1. Terrific post, Ardis!

    And a great save–glad you’re not playing goalie for England, or the US would have lost on Saturday!

    Comment by Mark B. — June 14, 2010 @ 9:09 am

  2. Amazing! As I read I could help but think of some of the things my family kept that may make more sense being in an archive than in a shoebox somewhere.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — June 14, 2010 @ 9:13 am

  3. As usual, your writing skills turn an ordinary event into a gripping account. I suspect that someday a descendant of George R. will find those documents in the church archives and say a silent prayer of thanks for you and the Church archivists that worked to preserve those papers.

    Comment by Clark — June 14, 2010 @ 9:33 am

  4. A compelling narrative, Ardis, and well written. I have my pile of documents that need to end out there at some point. Do you know if you can have start the donation process and continue donating to the same collection over time? Or do things like that end out being in separate collections?

    Comment by J. Stapley — June 14, 2010 @ 9:34 am

  5. GOOOOOOOAAAALLLLL! :) Thanks.

    J., I think they will end up in the same collection, judging only from having seen collections composed of papers that seem to have come in at different times. But that’s certainly the kind of question they should be able to answer easily via the email address.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 14, 2010 @ 9:39 am

  6. Thank heaven for our army of Ardises (Ardi?).

    Comment by Chad Too — June 14, 2010 @ 11:00 am

  7. What a story. Thanks.

    I couldn’t help but think that some of Stoll’s descendants might run into this post at some point, and boy, someone’s gonna get it! That young man might have some ‘splainin’ to do.

    Comment by Hunter — June 14, 2010 @ 11:50 am

  8. What an adventure!

    Comment by Researcher — June 14, 2010 @ 11:59 am

  9. Note to self: Take care of your stuff! The Ardii are watching you!

    Comment by kevinf — June 14, 2010 @ 12:34 pm

  10. More seriously, I do need to better organize some of my stuff that may be of value some day. I can’t tell you, though, how often I run across collections of pictures, with no indication of who the people in the pictures are. My wife and I attended a 40 year celebration of the middle school where she teaches, and were looking at old year books, plus the history books that the student officers kept each year. The pictures in the history books were great at adding captions or notes about the events, but no mention of who anyone in any of the pictures are. Just because someone knows them all this year, doesn’t mean anyone will recognize them in 20 or even 10 years.

    I remember talking to one of the church archaeologists who lived in my ward before we left Utah, and one of his projects was cataloging all the items taken from the outhouse wells at some of the old homesites in Nauvoo, including cleaning and reassembling old broken china and other treasures. Some good stuff went down those holes.

    Great story and reminder to all of us.

    Comment by kevinf — June 14, 2010 @ 1:16 pm

  11. Great story, Ardis. Thanks for saving and telling us the tale. It just makes me sick to think of what might have been lost and what we know has been lost in the past.

    Comment by Jared T. — June 14, 2010 @ 2:18 pm

  12. A compelling post, Ardis, as yours so often are. Don’t you wish some of the energy the archivists and conservationists have for their jobs could be transferred to the impatient young men of this world?

    Comment by ellen — June 14, 2010 @ 2:23 pm

  13. Ardis:
    You did a great service. The story of the LDS in the East German mission is an important piece of Church history. This is a great contribution.

    If only everyone viewed the mundane pieces of paper with the same urgency and reverence that we historians do…

    Comment by Steve C. — June 14, 2010 @ 5:09 pm

  14. You are to be commended for thinking about the trash can and the possibility that the shoebox might be there. I can imagine your horror at seeing the wet, soggy, stinky, red mess. And many thanks to the conservators who were able to get the items saved and restored.

    We all need this reminder to take care of our treasures. Thanks.

    Comment by Maurine — June 14, 2010 @ 11:58 pm

  15. What a save Ardis! This is my second reading of the post and I just now realized that George was only 56 years old when he died. So that box represented a majority of his life. I can imagine him carefully and purposefully storing each and every record…only to have them so carelessly mistreated. When I read that the young man threw such a treasure in the trash, I honestly had to count to 10 to bring my blood pressure back to normal. Thanks for caring Ardis. I’m sure George is grateful to you. I believe you’ve made a new friend (http://www.keepapitchinin.org/2009/07/07/calling-on-old-friends-i-havent-yet-met/)

    Comment by Meghan — June 24, 2010 @ 10:10 pm

  16. wonderful post, great story. How sad the items were dumped like that- and how wonderful the binmen don’t seem to collect on a daily basis! Our family ‘shoebox’ was a biscuit tin, which held various records including our baby books. My brother discarded the tin after my mother died and before I arrived at the house.

    Comment by Anne (U.K.) — June 26, 2010 @ 10:58 am

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