Gimbel Collection showcases history of flight

  • Published
  • By Don Branum
  • Air Force Academy Public Affairs
More than 1,500 special collections constitute the pride of the McDermott Library here, among them a room full of art and artifacts detailing man's long history and dreams of flight.

The Gimbel Collection, named for Army Air Corps Col. Richard Gimbel, covers the transition of flight from hot-air balloons, first flown before the Constitution was ratified, to parachutes and powered flight.

The collection rests in the McDermott Library's sixth floor, not far from a marble spiral staircase that's lined with an assortment of military rifles and muskets dating back to 1765. A visitor log sits in the front of the special collections area, along with a sign asking visitors to leave backpacks and other bulky containers on a bench at the front.

Inside the room where the Gimbel Collection is housed, humidifiers keep enough water vapor in the otherwise-dry air to preserve the artifacts, which include wax seals that are thousands of years old. Cameras monitor the room to help maintain the area's tight security.

Gimbel, whose family owned the Gimbels department store chain, bequeathed the collection to the Air Force Academy upon his death in 1970. The room was built to house the collection as part of the bequeathment. The Yale University graduate volunteered for duty in World War 1 as an artillery officer and joined the Army Air Corps in World War 2. He began his collection in 1942 after visiting a bombed bookstore in London, according to a pamphlet produced by the McDermott Library.

The Gimbel Collection is one of the Academy's more prominent special collections. Others include the Stalag Luft III Collection, donated by retired Brig. Gen. A.P. Clark, and the Royal Air Force Eagle Squadron Collection, donated by retired Brig. Gen. Phil Caine with bequeathments from Reade Tilly and Wilson Edwards.

Dr. Mary Elizabeth Ruwell, the chief of special collections, maintains the Air Force Academy's artifacts, including the Gimbel Collection. She's worked at the McDermott Library since 2004, but her interest in collections and archives started some years earlier.

"I kind of got in through the back door," Ruwell said, smiling. "I was working for an insurance company that was very old, and I was bringing people through the company's museum and archives."

Ruwell, a graduate of Georgetown University, picked up her doctorate in American Studies from the University of Pennsylvania and took a job as an archivist for the National Archives and Records Administration, which has its headquarters in Washington. She later worked as an archivist for the Smithsonian Institution as an anthropological archives director, then as director of the Peterson Air Force Base Air and Space Museum.

"After reviewing the candidates for the (chief of special collections) position, it was clearly evident that no one could match her combination of education and experience," said McDermott Library Director Dr. Ed Scott. "Among her accomplishments are establishing an ongoing materials preservation program, creating an active volunteer worker program, maintaining her active ties in local and national professional organizations and initiating a digital archives program that will make Academy materials available worldwide."

The Gimble Collection gets some visitors from around the Academy but has been quiet in recent months, with one notable exception, Ruwell said.

"We didn't have the faculty come through for faculty orientation, but we had a (Basic Cadet Training) squadron march in, single-file," she said. "They stayed for three or four minutes, then marched out again."

The room, along with the Academy's other collections, exist so that cadets can see history firsthand, Ruwell said.

"Our mission is teaching cadets how to look at and use primary resources," she said. "It's a question of showing history rather than just talking about it. Having a collection of things you can touch is invaluable. I think cadets who come up here have a better appreciation of time and change."