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August 2, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST
The birth of the Missouri Press
In the early summer of 1958, a desk drawer in Jesse Hall served as the birthplace for a Missouri legend. Much like a living being, it would grow and change through the years. It would enjoy days of happiness, and it would face adversity. It would become the University of Missouri Press.
Just a year prior, University Librarian Ralph Parker had conceived the idea of a press. He presented Dr. Elmer Ellis, president of the university, with a proposal that read, “If one accepts the position that the function of the University is the extension of the boundaries of knowledge, there is no question of the appropriateness and essentiality of a university press.”
The development of Parker’s brainchild began to show six months later when the Alumni Achievement Fund gifted $2,500 to the MU Board of Curators for the establishment of the press, about $18,500 today.
The doctor who delivered the press into the world a few months later wasn’t a physician, but renowned English professor William H. Peden. The press, looked after by Peden and his journalism graduate assistant, Judith Jenkins, would spend its infancy growing inside Peden’s desk drawer.
The formative years
The university press learned early on how to make valuable friends. Before its first birthday, the press befriended Upton Sinclair, who was unhappy with the sluggishness of the publisher to whom he had originally sent his manuscript. Peden suggested the UM Press as an alternative. Sinclair sent the press his manuscript My Lifetime in Letters, and it was published in 1960.
In early 1959, the press packed up its single drawer and moved for the first time. The new home, since-gone Lathrop Hall, was a condemned classroom building built in 1898 that once served as the university’s first men’s dormitory. One winter, Jenkins spotted a mouse in the office. Not having the heart to kill it or send it out into the cold, she cared for the creature in the bottom drawer of a file cabinet until the weather warmed enough to release it.
Despite the aged building, the UM Press continued to thrive and published about 10 books per year by the time Peden retired from his position as director in 1961.
During adolescence, the UM Press became more versatile and dabbled in new genres. Eventually, it decided to try its hand at music. In 1964, the press issued its first LP recording, Music in Medieval and Renaissance Life, performed by the MU Collegium Musicum and directed by Professor Andrew C. Minor.
During the next 26 years, the press inhabited an array of homes on campus, including Swallow Hall and a temporary building known as T-2. It cycled through various residences and eventually found stability at the end of the ’80s.
Beverly Jarrett became director of the press in March 1989, and the publishing house relocated to a permanent address in January of the next year. The move-in date for 2910 LeMone Blvd. was set for Jan. 15, 1990, Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Thinking it was a university holiday, the movers from MU didn’t show. So the eager press staff, along with author Mary Lago, loaded a convoy of vehicles and headed to the home in which they still reside.
As the press matured, it added Missouri native Langston Hughes to its list of comrades. The 16-volume Collected Works of Langston Hughes took 12 years for Jarrett to secure, but it was published by the press in 2001. According to 50 Years of Excellence, a book on the history of the press written by Melvin D. George, “The set contains many previously unpublished and out-of-print works by Hughes, furnishing once again an example of the significance of a scholarly press in making available material that would otherwise not be accessible to the public or to scholars.”
Sometime near the turn of the century, George joined the Development Committee, a group of people dedicated to fundraising for the press. He served on the committee until 2009.
“We cared about the press,” George says. “We thought it was doing fine and important work that was part of the central mission of the University of Missouri. We wanted to help it survive and do better, and the administration always encouraged us to raise funds if we could.”
The golden anniversary
In 2008, the publishing house celebrated its 50th birthday. At the time, it boasted annual net sales of $1.5 million and was publishing 55 to 60 new books each year. It received a Governor’s Humanities Award for Community Heritage for its influence in both the Midwest and the larger academic world, Beth Chandler, marketing manager of the press, says.
The luster of the golden year eventually faded. The recession that swept the nation became a harbinger of the bittersweet future of the press. “We had to take a hard look at the way we were doing business,” Chandler says. “The people here knew we had to look toward the future and sustainability.” She says they brought in several consultants who made recommendations that they put into place, such as moving their distribution operations to Chicago.
In 2009, the press began to publish new books in both print and e-book form. Despite the expansion of media, the staff halved to a total of 10.
Still, the smaller staff continued to work. They published everything from historical books such as They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust by Bill Tammeus and Jacques Cukierkorn in 2009 to sports books, such as Gibson’s Last Stand: The Rise, Fall, and Near Misses of the St. Louis Cardinals, 1969-1975 by Doug Feldmann in 2011.
The Press today
On May 24, the press received a critical diagnosis from Tim Wolfe, president of the UM System: The publishing house would no longer receive its annual $400,000 stipend because it had been operating at a loss for several years. Down to publishing 30 books each year and averaging annual net sales of about $800,000, the prognosis seemed fatal.
The press had become a staple in the academic community, and supporters such as Ned Stuckey-French, associate professor of English at Florida State University, didn’t hesitate to step in. The UM Press had published Stuckey-French’s book, The American Essay in the American Century, in 2001. When he heard the news, the author spearheaded a group known as “Save the Missouri Press.” As of July 31, its online petition had 5,108 signatures. He says the reason for the establishment of the group, however, goes beyond him and his book. “They have a vertical audience,” Stuckey-French says. “The books don’t sell a million copies at midnight. They get read for decades.”
On July 16, MU officials suggested a remedy: a press focused on digital publishing and student participation. Speer Morgan, editor of The Missouri Review, will become the director, and the 10 current employees will lose their jobs.
Several UM Press authors, including Don Spivey, who published with the press for the first time in 2012, have requested that the university return their book rights. In Spivey’s email to Wolfe, he expressed concern that his book be “in competent and stable hands.” Liz McCune, UM senior writer, said in an email that the administration values their authors and are committed to continuing taking care of them by marketing and distributing their work.
Some say the new model is a terminal illness and cite the failure of a similar model at Rice University. Others imagine a reinvigorated press full of new learning opportunities. So the press waits.
The father of the press, William Peden, died in 1999. His wife, Margaret Sayers Peden, says she is sad to see the press her husband welcomed into the world in such a predicament.
“The press meant so much to him, and it’s a good thing he’s not alive to see this day,” Sayers Peden says. “I can’t believe they’re doing this. They say they’re going to bring it back, but it won’t be the same press.”
This history was compiled with interviews and the book 50 Years of Excellence, which was published at the University of Missouri Press.