Jefferson City, MO-Conservator. Program director. Researcher. Educator.
Mark Schleer wears all of these hats and more on a daily basis as the Lincoln University Archivist. From his office on the top floor of Inman E. Page Library, Schleer serves as the guardian of Blue Tiger history, preserving and displaying writings, records and artifacts of all manner that tell the story of Lincoln.
"We have a book signed by Harriet Tubman," Schleer said, when asked about some of the more unique items in the Page Library Archives. "She signed it with a cross instead of an "X" because she was a devout Christian. I would say that's probably the most interesting item we have."
:We also have a time capsule that came out of Jason Gym in 2008. They were tearing down a wall, this little copper box came tumbling out, and there's some local newspapers in there, some issues of the Lincoln Clarion, there was even a basketball in there. I thought it was pretty cool."
Currently on Schleer's plate is a centennial celebration honoring LU's transition in 1921 from its former title of Lincoln Institute to being designated as a university by the state of Missouri.
"It was a major step," Schleer explains. "It went from being a training institute founded by former slaves, which alone is pretty profound, but it becomes a four-year university just decades later. It's incredible. The fact that we lasted this long, 155 years now, is a tribute to the dream those soldiers had. I know it probably sounds corny, but I mean every word. There's nothing to compare that to."
The founding of Lincoln University is monumental in and of itself, but Schleer points out that the school has continued to break down barriers and make its mark on history throughout those 155 years. Schleer points to the Lloyd Gaines Decision in 1939 as one of the ways Lincoln has made an indelible impact on the history of the United States.
"[Gaines] wanted to go to law school at the University of Missouri, and the Supreme Court of the United States said to Missouri it had to allow him to go to law school in its state. They ended up finding a loophole by building Lincoln a law school, but that was the first step from "separate but equal" to Brown vs. The Board of Education (which led to integration throughout the country). That milestone happened because of Lincoln University, and because of a Lincolnite name Lloyd Gaines. He's a civil rights hero."
Schleer's own history with Lincoln University runs deep. As a child in the 1960s, Schleer attended Lincoln Laboratory summer school for three years. His passion and enthusiasm for educating others, however, led him to transition from someone who was familiar with the campus to becoming a Blue Tiger.
"I had worked in retail for several years after graduating with my bachelor's degree at Central Missouri. I started substitute teaching, and I really liked that and decided I wanted to get my master's in history and become a full-time teacher," Schleer said. "What brought me to Lincoln was asking the people I was working for while I was substitute teaching where I should go to get my education degree, and they all, to a person, said Lincoln. [They said] the teacher education program there is great, a lot better than anywhere else around here."
Schleer decided to follow that advice and hasn't looked back. He ended up getting his master's degree at Lincoln, but his career path took a turn away from teaching when a fellow Lincolnite recognized his potential as a university librarian.
"I got a job in the library, and three days into the job, Elizabeth Wilson, the library director, asked me if I wanted to be her night manager,"Schleer said. "I thought, 'Well, I want to be a high school history teacher!'"She gave me the job bulletin and told me to think about it, and I saw the salary, and it was a bit more than a high school teacher's. I said, 'Okay, I'll do it, it's more money than I'd ever earned!'"
While working as the night manager, Schleer was asked by Carmen Beck, his predecessor in Archives, to help her out with research. In 2008, he put together his first exhibit, a large tableau entitled, "The Legacy of Lincoln." Working on the project not only allowed Schleer to tap into his passion for history, but also activated within him a new appreciation for the historic past of Lincoln University. When Beck left a year later, Schleer was asked to replace her, and he jumped at the opportunity.
"Well, I knew I didn't want to become a 65-year-old night manager, telling all the kids to be quiet over there," Schleer joked. "Really, it was a dream come true. I got a master's in history, and now I am the historian for my alma mater. This is a dream job for me."
Since taking over as the University Archivist, Schleer has helped Lincoln's already impressive collection of records and artifacts continue to grow. Some of the collection has developed through his dedicated hours of research. Other items have come as donations from alumni or members of the Jefferson community. And some items he's received through sheer serendipity -like, for example, a time capsule happening to fall out of a wall.
"It's a job I like to do because the more I find out (about Lincoln), the more I want to know, the deeper I want to dig," Schleer said. "There are some pieces out there that aren't 100% known to everybody, and I'm trying to fill in those gaps in our history. Sometimes it's tough, other times we get it thrown right in our laps! It's pretty cool."
Photo by: Keena Lynch