What do the world’s fastest man, an Academy Award winner and a handball record holder have in common with each other – and with Franklin? These are the types of historic facts that Dr. Rob Lawson, professor of History and director of the Honors Program, has uncovered over the years and is now ready to share with the world. As he explores Dean’s role in local history, his goal is to encourage both students and community members to engage with history and with each other.
As a professor at Dean for 20 years and the College’s resident historian, Lawson has long been immersing himself in Dean, in Franklin and in its shared history. He knows that history presented just as dry facts can bore people or turn them off history completely. Instead, Lawson makes it a point to bring the people and time periods his classes are learning about back to life.
“History has to be storytelling,” he said.
By studying primary sources, imagining the architecture that existed or listening to the music that would be played, Lawson focuses on the stories and how history is around us all the time. It’s an approach that helped get Lawson interested in history himself – his passion for the subject, and his academic focus, grew through his love for rock n’ roll and the blues, especially as he sought to learn and understand the history of segregation through its impact on music and vice versa.
“For me, history was not about some academic subject or learning out of a book,” he explained. “It was about this thing that exists in our world that’s important, and I wanted to know where it came from. That is always the question for me: why are things the way they are? Why do we live the life we live? Why do we have the opportunities and problems we have? We have to live with all the decisions that have made by the people before us. They’re handing a world to us, and we’re handing a world to the next generation.”
Part of that next generation is the students that Lawson teaches here at Dean. To make history relevant for his classes, he provides some freedom for students to choose what they want to study historically, and encourages them to choose a person or event that aligns with their interests, majors or careers.
“That way, students can see that history isn’t just something you get out of the textbook or by listening to a lecture,” he said. “It’s a way to explore your world through the lives of others.”
The History courses at Dean also provide plenty of hands-on opportunities to bring local history to life, whether that’s walking around campus and town, studying the immigration history of Franklin by researching names on the town’s war memorials or attending Lawson’s popular annual Halloween history tour.
Of course, history isn’t confined to Dean’s campus; it is also shaped by the history of Franklin as a whole, and plays a key role in that history itself. And it is Lawson’s hope that by sharing Dean’s history beyond campus, it will start to bridge the gap between the two communities. He aims to show both those who have lived in Franklin for a long time and those who are new to town that this history – and Dean – is theirs as well.
“We’re all part of each other’s community,” he explained.
One of the ways the College is promoting this shared history is by shining a light on the historical moments that have taken place both on and off campus. On February 18, the College celebrates its annual Founder’s Day, which commemorates the founding of Dean Academy in 1865 by Dr. Oliver Dean – a pivotal moment both for the College and for the community of Franklin. Throughout the years, we’ve marked the occasion in a number of ways to explore how Dean has transformed from farmland to the College we know today. For a peek inside that history, watch Lawson walk us through some key events in the video below, which was created in honor of the College’s 150th anniversary in 2015:
Lawson also spotlights local history through the citizen-historian video series “History in Your Backyard” that he created with Dr. David Dennis, professor of History and program coordinator for the humanities. Born in 2020 as a way to bring history to life for their virtual classes, Lawson and Dennis filmed videos from local historic sites they visited and hosted them at the New England Journal of History, which they both also edit. Students also have the opportunity to create and submit their own videos for the series, highlighting the history they uncover in their own everyday lives.
Another way the College is encouraging an exploration of our shared history is through events both on and off campus. To celebrate the College’s Founder’s Day this year, Dean is hosting a panel discussion to shine light on much of that little known-history of Franklin. The Founder’s Day Panel will feature Dean College archivist librarian Sarah Lindblom, M.L.I.S., and Rowan Lowell, archivist at the Franklin Historical Museum. Together, the two speakers will uncover forgotten founders through the power of archives and shine light on much of that little-known history of Franklin. The Founder’s Day Panel and Dessert Reception will take place on Thursday, February 16, 2023 from 6:00 – 8:00 p.m. in the Trophy Room of Memorial Hall on the Dean College campus. Registration is required.
Lawson will also be giving a presentation at the Franklin Historical Museum later this year, where he’ll profile the “History in Your Backyard” series and invite community members to participate and contribute to the series. More details to come about this event.
As we continue to explore the shared history between Dean and the Town of Franklin, we can’t wait to see what stories are uncovered – and what history we all make together.