Papenfuse (provided photo)
FEB.16,2023— Our latest Pal-Mac Alumni Spotlight features a 1961 graduate with a deep fascination for history and who has also made some history himself.
We spoke to Edward Papenfuse, who spent nearly four decades as the Maryland State Archivist and Commissioner of Land Patents.
The title of his role is impressive, but to truly understand his impact and dedication to preserving our nation’s history, we have to look at his history.
Papenfuse spoke to us over the phone for a short interview, but we covered everything from his arrival in Macedon in the 1950s to his retirement in 2013.
It was through his own family that Papenfuse began to draw interest in learning about history.
He first came to town with his family from Toledo, Ohio. His mother, Ruth, inherited a home and a piece of farmland at a family property along Wilson Road in Macedon. His father also transferred jobs to work at Eastman Kodak. His grandmother taught at Macedon District Schoolhouse Number 4, on the corner of Wilson Road at Route 31. The school building is now a private home.
While he enjoyed looking at his family history, Papenfuse said it wasn’t until he got to High School that his passion for community history took off.
He mentioned teachers like Mrs. Hatton (to whom the yearbook was dedicated in 1961) Mrs. Deci (wife to the then Supervising Principal), and his chemistry teacher, Mr.George Johns, as having an impact on him.
“It’s interesting, I don’t remember much about the history courses, I remember more about [my teachers]” Papenfuse said.
While at Pal-Mac, Papenfuse (“Pap” for short) took part in several clubs and activities ranging from chorus and student council to being the class historian.
1961 yearbook photo
Papenfuse (center) from the 1961 yearbook
"I always remember Ed's passion for history in our high school classes at Pal-Mac,” former classmate and current Board of Education member Gary LaBerge said.
During our chat, Papenfuse shared stories of loving science and launching model rockets on his family farm. He said a rogue rocket once landed on his uncle’s property, which put an end to his science days.
With his history interests growing, Papenfuse’s aunt, a family historian of sorts, encouraged him to apply for a local scholarship program. The Augustus L. and Jennie D. Hoffman Foundation Scholarship Essay Program encouraged the study of local history and provided scholarships for students in Wayne County schools. It folded in 2003.
After some consideration, Papenfuse decided to research and write about the development of Rural Free Delivery in the Town of Macedon. The delivery practice made it easier for rural communities to get mail and other goods.
Papenfuse interviewed old mail carriers and even took his investigation to the nation’s capital in Washington, D.C. He was in D.C. as part of a senior class trip and took the opportunity to research his topic at the National Archives. Needless to say, his hard work paid off…literally. Papenfuse won the scholarship, which at the time was $300 a year (roughly amounts to $3,000 today)
“It was pretty helpful in those days,” Papenfuse said.
Papenfuse soon took off from the District and went back to D.C. to attend American University. He first had political ambitions, with an initial goal to be Secretary of State. The scholarship money helped, but he needed a part-time job.
He spent time working for New York Congresswoman Jessica McCullough Weis and Congressman Frank Horton, both of whom represented Macedon at one point.
By the end of his senior year, Papenfuse would eventually trade out politics for his true passion. It took conversations with his wife, Sallie, to realize he would go back to focusing on history. He had met Sallie while studying abroad in England during his junior year.He went on to get his masters from the University of Colorado, and a Ph.D. from The Johns Hopkins University in Maryland.
The rest, they say, was history.
After taking a job with the American Historical Association (AHA) Papenfuse used his connections to help change how the United States preserves its records, particularly state and local records.
He and a committee pushed for the role of the National Historical Publications Commission (NHPC) to expand and include the preservation of documents. Papenfuse turned to an old employer, Congressman Horton, for help.Horton sponsored legislation in the House that was eventually passed. The commission has been recognized as the National Historical Publications & Records Commission ever since.
His work to preserve records across the country started with a piece of local history. Papenfuse said he convinced Horton to help by showing him a volume of the very first records of the Town of Macedon.
His uncle, John Wilson, initially kept the records until his death, and then his aunt Sara kept them.
Horton wound up visiting Macedon in 1973 to present the town with the recovered volume as part of its 150th anniversary.
Newspaper clipping of Horton's and Papenfuse's 1973 visit (courtesy, Remembering Baltimore)
This theme of preservation would become a common theme for Papenfuse, whose efforts caught the attention of the Maryland Archives. He was offered a job by the Assistant Archivist at the time. The two previously met during Papenfuse’s undergrad work.
Papenfuse would eventually succeed Morris L. Radoff as the state Archivist in 1975.
Throughout his roughly 40-year career, he put an emphasis on digital preservation. From starting with floppy disks in the 70s to developing a website for all Maryland government agencies. In a 2011 interview with the Library of Congress, Papenfuse said his efforts allowed the state to scan, index, and share online access to every land record in the state, going back to its founding in 1637.
Papenfuse discovered strong ties between abolitionists in Macedon and Maryland, primarily through Frederick Douglass and William R. Smith. Both were traced back to a schoolhouse off Victor Road.
Papenfuse said he passed the building on his school bus every morning.
“What I find fascinating about that sort of curve is that job actually brought me back to Macedon,” Papenfuse said. “Our world is small in many ways.”
He published several books and articles with a focus on the Revolutionary War era. His speeches and lectures as a professor at Johns Hopkins are well-documented. He also played a major role in the design of the state’s archives building, which is now named after him. Add that to his list of honors and awards, and you have quite the archive of his own history.
Courtesy, State of Maryland
He and Sallie went on to have two children, one of whom was the Mayor of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
While he retired in 2013, Papenfuse’s passion for history and stepping up to preserve it hasn’t stopped.
When asked what advice he had for current Pal-Mac students, he emphasized two things: civic responsibility and civility.
“I would hope that anyone who is graduating from Pal-Mac today would realize they have a civic responsibility and have a responsibility to be civil,” Papenfuse said. “If we don’t pursue those with vigor, we’re going to find ourselves in an even more divisive world.”
He finished our chat by looking back fondly on his time at Pal-Mac, and the connections he made with his teachers that helped jumpstart the rest of his life.
“Fortunately, I didn’t pursue a career in chemistry,” Papenfuse said.
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