Authority on Town and Gown

Authority on Town and Gown

Judith Schiff is a townie, having grown up in the long shadow of Yale University. Her family lived in the Westville section of New Haven, near the Yale Bowl, and she attended Hillhouse High School, which in the late 1950s was downtown, where Morse and Stiles colleges are now. The high school's basketball games and proms were held across the street in the Yale gym, and Schiff frequented the university's museums, art galleries, football games, concerts and plays.

For all that familiarity, she knew precious little about Yale, which remained enigmatic, ensconced behind its moat. She did know that Yale would not admit her. Undergraduate co-education was more than a decade away.

"It was a place of some mystery," said Schiff, who has been Yale's chief research archivist for more than 40 years. "You perceived huge bastions, these Gothic buildings that seemed to continue on and on. Until I began to work at Yale I didn't realize that they were separate buildings, that it wasn't just one big castle."

Today, if you want to know what has transpired inside the castle over the centuries — or in New Haven — you ask Schiff. She is the university's historian in all but name, pens the historical column "Old Yale" for the Yale Alumni Magazine, and four years ago was named New Haven city historian. She can conjure Blue trivia as well as insights into the broad sweep of social and political movements that have transformed the university and its host city.

When storm Sandy toppled the "Lincoln Tree" in 2012 and the remains of four people — two adults and two children — were found tangled in its roots, Schiff worked with archaeologists and anthropologists to unravel the mystery of who had been buried there, when, and even what might have been the cause of death. The venerable tree had been planted on the New Haven Green in 1909 to commemorate the centennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth. The scientists took care of the forensics while the archivist developed the historical framework.

"Judith put the discovery in context," said Gary Aronsen, Ph.D. and research associate at Yale's Biological Anthropology Laboratories. "She was able to narrow down what was happening in New Haven and on the Green at the time when these people were buried. I had wondered why so many bodies were buried so close together, and she was able to explain that the Green, which had long been the city's burial ground, had filled up." In 1797, soon after these four people were buried, the Grove Street Cemetery was created. In her Old Yale column, Schiff described one of her sources: "Detailed descriptions of burials during the final years of the old burying ground were recorded by Yale president Ezra Stiles, Class of 1746, in his diary. Many of the dead had succumbed to the epidemics that swept through the colonies in the mid-1790s."

In addition to delving into the past, Schiff frequently teaches and lectures about history. She has served as a teaching fellow at Timothy Dwight College, is an adviser to the Yale History Department, and regularly counsels seniors on their final essays. She also helps the likes of David McCullough, the best-selling author, with research for his books.

Schiff, herself, is an accomplished author and editor: She researched and wrote the Michelin's "Green Guide to Yale and New Haven"; co-edited Charles Lindbergh's autobiography; and contributed a chapter on the city's social history for a book about New Haven. A compilation of her nearly 200 Old Yale pieces was in the works when the Great Recession struck, and may return to the front burner soon. Odds are if Schiff doesn't know a thing about town or gown, or can't find it using the vast resources at her command, the thing is unknowable.

Although not a Yale alumna, Schiff comes as close to personifying the university as anyone, on or off campus. She knows where the bodies are buried — literally; she's on the board of the Grove Street Cemetery, among myriad other local and professional organizations, a few of which she helped to found. She has toiled cheerfully for Yale for 57 years and during her tenure has witnessed more than a third of its 23 presidents in action.

"Archivist" is something of a limiting term when applied to Schiff. She has long been one of the institution's ablest and most engaging ambassadors: speaking about school history each year to reunion classes and at Yale Clubs around the country, and taking the lead in acquiring prestigious papers for the library, including those of Emily Dickinson and Lindbergh. In March she gave a presentation at the British Library for a symposium on "Alaska, the Arctic and the U.S. Imagination."

She also serves as an important link to New Haven, as does the library, many of whose resources are open to the public free. A photo in her office shows the archivist engulfed in a sea of enthusiastic scholars at the city's Prince Street School, where she helped fifth-graders do a little research.

Schiff is one of those people who are invigorated by their job, who view what they do not as work but more like recreation. When asked if she had contemplated retiring, she laughed: "Not so far, I am in a field where age is not really a barrier. No one has asked me to retire, and I really enjoy what I am doing. It would be like being an artist and having to stop painting or a musician and not composing."

After Hillhouse High School, with the Blue drawbridge up, Schiff attended Barnard College. Following graduation she returned to New Haven to earn money toward furthering her education, with the goal of becoming a history teacher. Toward that end, she went to work for Yale in June of 1959, first as an editorial assistant, and later that year landed a job at Yale's Sterling Memorial Library, processing and cataloging the papers of New Haven families for its growing archives. The pay was modest, but she liked the work.

With the exception of a stint at Columbia University, where she earned her master's degree in history, she has been at Sterling ever since, in the same office she first inhabited in the mid-1960s. She acquired her degree in library science from Southern Connecticut State University, attending night classes while continuing to work full time. She rose to her current position in 1971.

A person can learn many things from Schiff: one of them that New Haven was not always a college town, far from it. It was a thriving manufacturing city where a small, struggling institution of higher learning played a decidedly minor role in the scheme of things. As recently as the 1940s, Yale was on the ropes and stayed solvent largely by renting its campus out to the United States military and accepting veterans taking advantage of the G.I. Bill.

When asked to name a surprising thing about Yale, she posited that historically it has been a place of opportunity, not simply an educational resort for the upper crust. "Until quite recently, when all colleges have gotten so costly, the expensive part of going to Yale was not tuition but living away from home," she said. "Noah Webster came from a poor farm family. It was not an exclusive rich man's school; you find African-Americans and immigrants and many Connecticut and New Haven residents enrolled. The father of Bart Giamatti [the late Yale president] was a day student from the Italian section of New Haven. It was an avenue of upward mobility. There were students who would do things like sell newspapers when they weren't in class." In 2001, after 300 years of existence, Yale had accepted more graduates from Hillhouse High School than from anywhere else, including places like Andover and Exeter. One prominent Hillhouse grad was the late Levi Jackson, who became Yale's first African-American football captain in 1949.

In her magazine column Schiff has written extensively about the people of Yale and New Haven, great and small, from pioneering black and women students to a former Yale president who died of wounds sustained whille defending New Haven from a British invasion in 1779. The story of Naphtali Daggett had improved with the telling over the years, and as Schiff brought it to life again she dutifully corrected the record. The staunch patriot was 51, not 72, and was wielding a contemporary musket not an "antiquated weapon." She takes her history straight up, no garnish or funny little umbrellas.

If Judith Schiff is correct – and she invariably is: it is people who make a place what it is, rather than facades of stone and mortar, however modern or pretend Medieval. And she clearly has done her part to make Yale and New Haven what they are. The lack of a Yale degree has in no sense diminished what she has meant, and will mean to the university and to her city, not to mention to scholars near and far.

Nonetheless, next May, at the Yale’s 315th Commencement, it would be a most fitting honor all the same if Yale officially inducted her into the club.