C. H. Cramer, Historian, 1902–1983


The essential thing in writing history, Clarence Henley “Red” Cramer said on more than one occasion, is to remember that you are telling a story; and that, oddly enough, involves omitting things. “To tell a story well,” the prize-winning historian explained in a 1980 interview preserved in the Case Western Reserve University Archives, “you don’t tell everything. You leave a few things out”—like minor incidents and endless catalogs of names that take focus away from the really important people—“because it makes a tighter, more interesting story.”

Decades later, Cramer’s eight books still come alive because he knew the secrets of telling a good story, whether it be the life of the great 19th-century orator and debunker of “old-time religion” Robert G. (for “Godless,” his foes said) Ingersoll, or his history of the dental school at CWRU—the campus Cramer called home for three decades.

Flip open the latter book, for example, and you may find Cramer telling about how, in the 1890s, when a distrusting populace still saw students of human anatomy as grave robbers, the university’s medical school (from which the dental school sprang) actually built secret “wells” in the building’s walls in which the cadavers could be suspended by hooks in the event of a raid. Open Shelves, Open Minds: A History of the Cleveland Public Library (1972) conjures a vivid image of Lake Erie sailors spending Friday nights in port curled up with (at least in some cases) a good book.

Red Cramer’s histories were treasured both for their accuracy and for their straightforward, and somewhat irreverent, treatment of people and events. The New York Times Book Review pronounced Royal Bob: The Life of Robert G. Ingersoll, published in 1952, “a scrupulously documented biography that reflects the excitement of Ingersoll’s life and identifies his ideas in accurate relation to the main intellectual currents of his time.” Cramer’s 1962 biography of Newton D. Baker, the brilliant mayor of Cleveland (1912–1916), who became Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of War, revealed that F.D.R. had phoned Baker during the deadlocked 1932 Democratic convention to offer to throw his support to him, if Baker, the darling of the Stop Roosevelt forces, really wanted the nomination. He didn’t. Baker saw the presidency, wrote Cramer, as a four-year sentence to a glorified prison “without benefit of clergy or even the mollifying ministration of a parole board.”

Born in Eureka, Kansas, in 1902, the son of a minister, young “Red” spent his childhood moving from one small-town parish to another—in Kansas, Iowa and Illinois—before settling in Mt. Gilead, Ohio, some 35 miles north of Columbus. Attending Ohio State University as a “street-car student,” he earned his B.A. (1927), M.A. (1928) and Ph.D. (1931), specializing in economic and diplomatic history. He subsequently taught at Southern Illinois University.

The war years found Cramer in Washington, D.C., where he would serve as director in charge of recruitment, first for the Board of Economic Warfare and then for the National War Labor Board. After the war, he spent three years trying “to help repair the ravages of the conflict”—first as personnel director of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administratio’s displaced persons operation in war-torn Germany, where he met his future wife, Elizabeth Garman, a cultivated UN social worker born in Tokyo of missionary parents. He later served as a consultant to the International Refugee Organization’s Washington office, while he researched the life of Robert Ingersoll at the Library of Congress.

In 1949, Cramer accepted the only other academic appointment of his career—with the history department of Western Reserve University, where the distinguished historian Carl Wittke, his old mentor from OSU, was now dean of the graduate school. Cramer, a gifted lecturer who rose at 5 a.m. to go over his notes, which he never consulted during class, was soon to win a reputation of his own with his biographies of Ingersoll and Baker. He would succeed Wittke as chair of the history department (1963–1967). In 1973, Cramer was awarded, like Wittke before him, the Cleveland Arts Prize, for “two outstanding books published in a single year”: his History of the Cleveland Public Library and American Enterprise: Free and Not So Free, which the publisher, Little Brown, described as “A History of the Rise and Fall of the American Business Community from Colonial Times to the Present.”

In fact, Cramer, who was also a gifted administrator, had done double duty as associate dean (1949–1951) and then acting dean (1951–1954) of WRU’s business school before being tapped as dean of Adelbert College, the university's men’s division (1954–1969). To colleagues, his energy seemed boundless. In 1960, at the age of 55, Cramer (who had played semi-professional baseball while teaching in southern Illinois) was still running 14 laps on the school’s indoor track and was top scorer on the faculty basketball team.

It was only after being named emeritus professor of history in 1974 that he was able to turn again to his first love, storytelling. He wrote a history of the university for its centennial in 1976, as well as histories of its law school (1977), its school of library science (1979) and its dental school (1982).

Red Cramer’s legacy went far beyond his books. “Many a student managed to complete his education,” Henry Zucker, chairman of the university’s board of trustees, would write after Cramer’s death in 1983, “only because Dean Cramer was able to find a loan fund or scholarship to tap.” Democracy in American higher education, Cramer told a Parents Day audience in 1955, “can lead either to the nurture of mediocrity or of ability. . . . The hope and need of a democracy must be to find, to encourage, and to cultivate the exceptional no less than the average—if we are to have real leaders—leaders who are wise and good.”

At his death, a fund was established in his name “for students of CWRU with motivation and desire who are studying the humanities, particularly history.”

—Dennis Dooley

Cleveland’s First Library

In 1881, when Cleveland was the tiniest of settlements on a rude frontier, sixteen of its sixty-four inhabitants subscribed to its first library, a short-lived reading circle established to distribute the hard-to-come-by printed word. In this literary round the members read such books as a history of Rome, Johnson’s Lives of the English Poets, Goldsmith’s Greece and Cervantes’ Don Quixote. This list would constitute a respectable cultural showing in any intellectual milieu; it was astounding for a wilderness village on a river bank.

. . . During the 1830s in Cleveland there was a Cleveland Reading Association with one hundred members. There was also a Young Man’s Literary Association with eight hundred volumes; its first president was Charles Whittlesey, the scientist and historian often designated as Cleveland’s first literary man. . . . In the same decade sailors from Lake Erie could find relaxation in the privately financed Bethel Reading Room which was open two evenings a week. The operation had an unusual come-on, one wonders whether by design. For the sailors a red signal indicated that the library was open. The same illumination also certified that other dwellings in Cleveland were available for a different kind of relaxation. . . .

By the middle years of the nineteenth century the most influential cultural organization in the Western Reserve was the Cleveland Library Association, which offered interesting books, a reading room, a museum, and a lecture series for those who could buy shares of stock at ten dollars each. The book collection continues to the present day. . . . The librarian for the association in the mid-1850s was a talented Negro. He was William Howard Day, who had come to Cleveland after graduation from Oberlin College in 1847, and in time would become the editor and publisher of the first newspaper in the United States published especially for Negroes—The Aliened American.

—Open Shelves and Open Minds: A History of the Cleveland Public Library (Press of Case Western Reserve University, 1972)

Should Taxes Support the"Gluttons" of Reading?

In Cleveland, at midpoint in the nineteenth century Charles Dickens, William Lloyd Garrison, Horace Greeley, Henry Ward Beecher, and Susan B. Anthony—among others— were on the lyceum speaking circuit. The average price received by Emerson for an evening lecture was ten dollars and traveling expenses; on one occasion when he received the maximum of fifty dollars, he expressed grave doubt as to the morality of accepting such remuneration. The humorist Artemus Ward, who then reviewed these lectures for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, thought there was another reason why Emerson should not receive that much money. He wrote:

He is a man of massive
intellect. . . but his lecture last night was a rather sleepy affair.
For our part. . .
we would as lief see
a perpendicular coffin
behind a lecture desk as Emerson. The one would amuse as much as the other.

Ward also took a dim view of Horace Greeley, with the comment:

A great many persons
think he is a great man,
and Greeley inclines
to that opinion himself.
Long may he wave.

Because of this activity in the private sector, there were many people who thought the idea of a publicly supported library to be comparable in absurdity with the then-novel concept of tax-supported public schools. It was claimed that taxes were already too high and that public support for libraries would be inequitable because it would subsidize book readers at the expense of those not so inclined. It would also represent an extension of governmental functions that was both socialistic and contrary to free enterprise.

Many felt it was wrong to favor one special section of the community—book readers—at great cost to all the rest. If one man could have his hobby paid for by his neighbors, why not all? Were “theatre-goers, . . . amateurs of music, and others to have their earnings confiscated, and their capacities for indulging in their own special hobbies curtailed, merely to satisfy gluttons of gratuitous novel-reading?”

—Open Shelves and Open Minds

Godless Bob Critiques the 10 Commandments

He did not believe that Jonah had taken cabin passage in a fish. Someone had suggested that a person in the stomach of a whale would have been digested in less than three days and that Jonah, in order to avoid a dreadful chemical dissolution, had taken refuge from time to time in the mouth of the monster. Ingersoll pictured the unfortunate prophet on the constant go and jump. . . .

While the absurdity Ingersoll saw in many passages of the Bible might amuse him, the cruelty which he found in Holy Writ appalled him. As a lawyer he could express the judgment that no civilized country would re-enact Mosaic laws because many features of the Biblical moral code—particularly its condonation of slavery, wars of conquest, polygamy and the slaughter of the helpless—were abhorrent to “every good and tender man.” . . . The [Commandments] portrayed the surface preoccupation of God with matters of personal honor and prestige. . . . How much better it would have been, thought Ingersoll, if there had been a commandment against slavery in place of the one on the Sabbath, an injunction against polygamy as a substitute for the ban on swearing, an indictment of war instead of talk about graven images. How much grander the Ten Commandments would have been if Jehovah had been civilized! Thousands of crimes were committed daily against helpless men, women and children but [the biblical Deity] had no time to prevent them. He was too busy, averred Ingersoll, “numbering hairs and watching sparrows. He listens for blasphemy; looks for persons who laugh at priests; examines baptismal registers; watches professors in colleges who begin to doubt the geology of Moses and the astronomy of Joshua.”

—Royal Bob: The Life of Robert G. Ingersoll (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1952)

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