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Ultimate Archivist

9/27/2004:

Today would have been the 100th birthday of Dr. Robert Henry Bahmer, who died in 1990. Dr. Bahmer was the United States Archivist from 1966 to 1969, and he also directed the Presidential Libraries of Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower. In 1970, Bahmer’s accomplishment earned him North Dakota’s highest honor, the Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award.

Bahmer was born in 1904 near Gardena, a small town south of Bottineau, and attended high school in the neighboring town of Omemee. He spent one year at UND and then transferred to Valley City State Teachers College, where he received his B.A. degree in 1928. Bahmer was only 24 when he graduated from college, yet he had also, by then, spent two years as a school principal in Bentley in the southwest corner of the state.

Bahmer continued his education at the University of Colorado, where he got his masters degree in 1938. Three years later, he received a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota. During this time period, he had also started working for the National Archives.

Maybe we should take a moment to explain what archivists do. While historians are primarily the people who research and interpret the past, archivists collect, organize, and preserve the significant records and other documentary materials that historians and others use for their research. While much of the material preserved by archivists consist of written records, they may often preserve significant objects as well.

Dr. Bahmer’s specialty at the National Archives was managing records for the Navy and War Departments. By 1966, he had worked his way to the top when he became the fourth person every appointed Archivist of the United States.

During Bahmer’s career, he was instrumental in promoting the concept of archiving. One of his achievements, for example, was convincing Ford Motors to create permanent archives relating to their industrial accomplishment. In fact, when Henry Ford’s widow died, Dr. Bahmer was one of the first people allowed into her home to search for important items for the company’s archives.

One of the higher profile moments of Bahmer’s career took place on October 31, 1966, in room 6-W-3 of the National Archives. The Kennedy family had given the Archives a footlocker containing materials collected at President Kennedy’s autopsy. Bahmer and four other officials were there to witness the unlocking of the footlocker and then check its contents against a written inventory. Inside, they found photos and X-rays taken during the autopsy, but it was what they didn’t find that confounded them. Missing were materials listed under “item No. 9” of the inventory, including: a box containing 84 slides; 2 plastic boxes containing tissue samples set in wax; and 3 wooden boxes containing 58 blood smears taken during President Kennedy’s lifetime.

A last missing item raised the greatest amount of alarm – a 7 x 8 inch stainless steel box containing “gross” (or nonspecific) material, including President Kennedy’s brain. A full-scale investigation was launched to find the missing articles, but none were ever found.

The footlocker had most recently been under the control of the President’s brother, Robert Kennedy. It was said that Robert feared his brother’s “body parts” would ultimately end up on public display in the Smithsonian, and many believe he curtailed that possibility by disposing of the items himself.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm