Monday, February 13, 2012

Learnard's History Passion Crosses Country, Generations

By Lisa E. Crowley
BROCKTON—When AmeriCorps volunteers come to Brockton to work in the community, one of their first stops before hitting the streets is to visit with John W. Learnard, a pillar of knowledge about Brockton’s history, and now the namesake of Brockton’s Shoe Museum.
“John’s passion for Brockton’s history is unparalleled,” said Matt Powers, a 20-something Pembroke native who joined AmeriCorps and met Learnard to learn a little bit about Brockton’s history.
Powers said the visit has stayed with him and dozens of AmeriCorps workers who come from all over the country to serve in Brockton.
“I’m here because of his passion for Brockton’s history,” Powers said, “and he’s spreading that passion for Brockton’s history around the country.”
Learnard, a longtime member of the historical society and past president, was honored Sunday with the dedication of the Brockton Shoe Museum in his honor.
More than 200 people attended a celebration of not only Learnard’s stewardship, but also the release of a new book, “Brockton Revisited,” by recently outgoing historical society president James E. Benson through Arcadia Publishing’s “Images of America” series.
The foreword is written by Mayor Linda Balzotti.
Benson said the book is a trip through Brockton’s past during the 1950s and 1960s, when Rocky Marciano lived and rose to fame in the city’s Ward 2, and the book is filled with pictures of city life by photographer Stanley Bauman, whose collection has been at Stonehill College since Bauman died in 2007.
Over the last few years, Stonehill College has become a repository for Brockton-centric photographs, collections, and libraries beginning with the Bauman collection in 2007, and in June 2011 the college came to an agreement with Brockton’s Historical Society to transfer the society’s rare and unique shoe collection to Stonehill’s archive department for preservation and exhibition.
Stonehill has promised to continually display the historical society’s shoes and prevent further deterioration of the collection.
The society’s collection had been exhibited and stored at the society’s headquarters at 216 Pearl St.  where the Shoe Museum, Fire Museum, Marciano Museum and Edison Museum are located.
However, the museum building is not climate controlled and some of the shoes were being ruined by a major mold infestation, humidity and chewed by mice who found the leather tasty.
The buildings are small and many of the society’s artifacts were tucked away in the basement and attic, out-of view and rarely seen by the public.
A problem noted by Learnard Sunday when he thanked Lynn Brandenburg, daughter of Bill Rossi, who after years of balking, finally agreed to donate his extensive shoe collection to the historical society which has in turn donated to Stonehill for exhibit and research.
The Rossi collection and those donated by William Doyle were the core artifacts which launched the Shoe Museum in the 1970s and 1980s. 
“I asked him over and over again: Are you ever going to give us your collection? Absolutely not, he said, not if you’re just going to put it in that basement or an attic,” Learnard recalled.
Since the opening of a relationship with Stonehill, most notably through Archives and Historical Collections Director Nicole Tourangeau Casper, last fall negotiations began with Stonehill to receive as a loan the historical society's collections with the underlying goal to preserve them and open more of them to the public.
Many items have been moved to the Stonehill campus, but a standing exhibit will always be on view at the Pearl Street headquarters of Brockton's Historical Society. 
Learnard said with the addition of the new collections, Stonehill’s archive department is a premier facility to learn about the once thriving shoe industry.
“Now, perhaps we have the library of shoemaking in the country, maybe even the world,” Leanard said, noting the Stonehill collection maybe second to none, except possibly an archive in England.
For her part, Stonehill's Tourangeau Casper, said the college is looking forward to preserving Brockton's rich history and developing rotating exhibits for public view.
"Our goal is to help the historical society preserve and exhibits its collections," Tourangeau Casper said. "We're caretakers," she said.

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