Leonard Menzi's Lost Negatives

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings
Original Images:



Author: Sean McConnell

Large monuments are often erected to commemorate famous people or events, allowing passersby to reflect on the past. One may also learn about the past from the historical narratives recorded in books. Yet sometimes it is a dusty box of negatives, housed in envelopes yellowed with age, that brings the lives of those long gone to the forefront. Such was the case when Alexis Braun Marks, head of Eastern Michigan University Archives, gave me a large collection of negatives to digitize earlier in the summer. The negatives date from the late 1920s to the early 1940s and document Roosevelt School’s history.

Roosevelt School was constructed on the Michigan State Normal College campus in 1925, becoming the second laboratory school on the campus after Welch Hall. Roosevelt remained a laboratory school until 1969, when the Michigan State Legislature governed the dismantling of the laboratory school system. Roosevelt served as both a grade school and high school during its time on campus, and the building now accommodates classrooms for Eastern Michigan University. We knew little about the newly discovered negatives when I started digitizing them, beyond what we gleaned from words penciled on the envelopes. We knew that the negatives portrayed Roosevelt students and faculty inside and outside the classroom, but we did not even know who created the negatives. We soon found our answer after viewing the images for the first time.

Over 800 negatives have been scanned to date, and hundreds more remain. The name “Leonard Menzi” was written on some of the envelopes. I initially suspected that Mr. Menzi may have been the photographer in question, but I became certain only recently. A few of the images feature a tidy white house on an Ypsilanti street corner. After locating Mr. Menzi’s address in the 1940 census, I confirmed that it was the house in which he lived. I later searched through the Roosevelt School collection, housed in the Eastern Michigan University Archives, and found books that Mr. Menzi produced. Many of the images in the negative collection appear in these books as prints. Ypsilanti Gleanings readers likely know that Leonard Menzi taught science at Roosevelt starting in the late 1920s and served as the school principal from 1940 to 1961. Mr. Menzi’s negatives provide a reminder of his interesting life and Roosevelt School’s unique programs, as well as the beauty of the Michigan State Normal College campus.

Leonard Menzi hailed from Oberlin, Ohio, where he received his Bachelor of Arts degree at the liberal arts college that shares his hometown’s name. He later earned a Master of Arts degree in Education from the University of Chicago. Not bound by national borders, Mr. Menzi traveled all the way to China to teach science and serve as principal of the North China American School. He lived in Tungchow with his wife, Margaret, whose parents were Christian missionaries. The Menzis arrived in Ypsilanti at the end of the 1920s, when Mr. Menzi secured employment at Roosevelt. Materials on the North China American School may be found at the Yale Divinity Library, but you do not have to travel all the way to Connecticut to view materials on the Menzis. Margaret Menzi donated her papers to the University of Michigan’s Bentley Library, including photocopies of the diary she kept in China. An even shorter trip to the Eastern Michigan University Archives’ website leads to the numerous images Mr. Menzi took of his family, colleagues, and the students who populated Roosevelt School’s classrooms.

Mr. Menzi taught science at Roosevelt before becoming principal in 1940, and he also participated in extracurricular activities. He organized in 1931 the “Kodak Klub,” also known as the “Photography Club,” and shared with students his passion for photography. Betty Pooler wrote in the 1932 Hillcrest yearbook that “members take, as well as develop, print, and enlarge, their own pictures.” These pictures were showcased in Roosevelt’s main lobby. While the Photography Club clearly existed as a pleasurable activity for Roosevelt students, the organization maintained a practical side as well. Betty noted photography’s burgeoning popularity and found that it “is to meet this rapidly growing demand that members of the photography group are so zealously studying.” As the Great Depression ravaged many Americans’ fortunes, the Photography Club members knew “that by diligent application they will find themselves safely out of the ranks of the unemployed.”

Photography Club members actively engaged in their chosen craft, and also highlighted other well-known photographs. According to a 1938 edition of the Rough Rider, Roosevelt’s school newspaper, the Eastman Kodak Company displayed photographs in the lobby. Kodak presented, among others, the infamous image of the burning Hindenburg. Photography Club members were to display their own images the following week, and Mr. Menzi was to award the student who took the best photograph. Besides awarding talented photographers, Mr. Menzi encouraged students’ creativity when he paired his own photographs with students’ poetry. The collaboration resulted in the 1935 edition of Adventures in Creative Expression, also housed within the University Archives’ Roosevelt School collection. Mr. Menzi photographed numerous fall and winter scenes around campus, including the fall image displayed in this article, and placed them in the book. A student’s poem appeared beside each photograph. Lillian Anspach, then 10 years old, perfectly captured this photograph’s autumnal imagery:

Fall is here. The trees are
shedding their golden hair.
When this season is over the
branches will be bare.

Other teachers also created a lively atmosphere at Roosevelt. Louis A. Golczynski, a science teacher as well, decided that Roosevelt needed a zoo and started housing animals on campus. Students writing in the 1931 Hillcrest called the zoo “something decidedly unique in secondary education circles.” Mr. Golczynski provided shelter for a “strange menagerie” of “coyotes, mice, guinea pigs, skunks, and raccoons” and many other animals. The zoo proved popular. In “one week a guest quota of three hundred was reached,” showing the Hillcrest writers that “the animal hotel is attractive to those who seek entertainment or information.” Geese apparently found shelter at the Roosevelt School zoo alongside the coyotes and mice.

Mr. Menzi and his colleagues promoted progressive education at Roosevelt School. Instead of rote memorization, students learned how to think critically and to apply knowledge. Teachers created programs like the Photography Club to supply students with skills. An article in the Fall 1930 edition of the Integrator, the Ypsilanti teachers’ newsletter, referred to a proposed industrial arts program that would “give students on the junior high level an opportunity to explore and experiment in the fields of printing, wood work, general metal work (which includes bench metal, forging, and foundry), mechanical drawing, electricity, and home mechanics.” The Industrial Arts program became enacted under the guidance of Duane G. Chamberlain, and Roosevelt soon contained home workshops. Mr. Menzi took photographs of the workshops, including the one shown in this article of a boy painting a chair in 1941.

This is a small selection of a wonderful collection of images that have been scanned and uploaded to the University Archives’ LUNA database that features faculty, student plays, baseball teams, campus grounds, field trips, and numerous other people and events. These images provide a perfect supplement to the Roosevelt School collection, which includes scrapbooks, yearbooks, and other administrative records. Everyone is welcome to visit the archives to view the collection of photographs and documents, or to access the database of images on the Eastern Michigan University Archives’ website and see these past scenes from a unique Ypsilanti educational center.

(Sean McConnell recently graduated from Wayne State University with a Master of Arts in history and a graduate certificate in archival administration. He is an aspiring archivist.)


Photo Captions:

Photo 1: Leonard Menzi hailed from Oberlin, Ohio.

Photo 2: Menzi’s Photography Club members posing outside Roosevelt School in 1938.

Photo 3: Mr. Menzi photographed numerous fall and winter scenes around campus and then placed them in a book with student poems.

Photo 4: Geese apparently found shelter at the Roosevelt School zoo alongside coyotes and mice.

Photo 5: Mr. Menzi took photographs of students working in the school shops such as this one showing a student painting a chair.