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At 76, Ann Pflaum, the UMN’s historian, is a walking storybook

Ann Pflaum is working on what could be her final project: a history of U presidents’ wives.
Ann Pflaum, the Universitys historian, poses for a portrait outside Northrop Auditorium on Wednesday, Mar. 22, 2017.
Image by Easton Green
Ann Pflaum, the University’s historian, poses for a portrait outside Northrop Auditorium on Wednesday, Mar. 22, 2017.

Walking around campus, Ann Pflaum recounted the stories behind the famed old names on every campus hall.

She paused to check for bicyclists at the bike crossings on the mall, which she calls “the most dangerous part of campus.”

The 76-year-old, gray-haired University of Minnesota historian was on her daily mission to reach 10,000 steps — she read somewhere it’s good for you — and, to her surprise, was only at 1,400.

Pflaum, who has been studying and working at the University for more than half of her life, is a walking storybook. She speaks highly of her home and knows it better than anyone else.

“At my age you’re not working because of your salary but because you like it,” she said. “Could you imagine a more interesting job?”

She can’t.

“Certainly, she would be the go-to person for the University of Minnesota history,” said Mary Wingerd, author of North Country, a book tracing the origins of Minnesota as a state.

Pflaum said she’s concerned that, as her time at the University nears its end, she won’t be able to secure financing for certain parts of a project that may be her final task: an in-depth project on the University presidents’ spouses commissioned by Karen Kaler.

While mulling a historical project on the presidential home, Eastcliff, Kaler said she realized the University, unlike many other colleges, had no documentation of the presidential wives’ work.

And like so many others at the University looking to learn about the school’s history, she turned to Pflaum.

“Everyone told me I had to talk to Ann.”

First-hand accounts

In Pflaum’s role as a historian, she’s written books about the University’s history, aided the president and researched for the University speechwriter.

But before that, Pflaum was a master’s student at Harvard University. She completed her doctorate in English history at the University.

In the 1970s, she was appointed the University’s Title IX coordinator. She also helped ensure the University complied with parts of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a student with disabilities equity law.

Pflaum went on to serve as associate dean of the College of Continuing Education.

While reviewing Title IX and Rehabilitation Act-related policies, she traveled to all of the University’s campuses to prepare a report for the federal government.

She said traveling to all of the campuses was the best way to learn about the University’s wide range of focuses.

“Can you imagine a better way to learn about an institution?” Pflaum said.

During the 2008 economic recession, then-University President Bob Bruininks wanted to prove the University could serve its community despite turbulent times, so he asked Pflaum for examples of how the University persevered during the Great Depression.

“One of the things that was really important to me, was the ability to go to Ann to anchor a lot of the things I wanted to say,” Bruininks said.

Her close friend Lois Hendrickson, curator of the Wangensteen Historical Library, said Pflaum excels at putting history into broader perspective.

“When you do history it’s easy … get caught up in the details of something,” she said. “[But] putting it into this larger framework … she’s especially adept at doing that.”

As vice president and provost at the time, Bruininks appointed Pflaum as the official University historian in 2000 without any formal interviews.

“It didn’t have a search, it just kind of got created,” she said. “I just float along and try to be useful.”

Before she was appointed historian, Pflaum chronicled the University’s history for its 150thanniversary in 2001. Since then, she’s offered her insight to countless journalists and researchers.

‘She gets stuff done’

When she’s not in her small, cluttered office in the basement of Morrill Hall, Plfaum walks around campus or does laps inside Northrop Auditorium in the winter. When it’s warm enough, she ventures to Dinkytown for an ice cream cone at McDonald’s, her favorite snack.

But she never really stops working, telling stories about each building she passes. Friends and colleagues describe her as a devoted worker.

Lyndel King, Wesiman Art Museum director, said Pflaum’s long career at the University gives her valuable perspective on current events.

Pflaum and King have been friends since they worked together on a project, and today they share frequent lunches. King calls them “if-I-ran-the-University-lunches.”

“I try to be a gentle critic, not a mean critic, an amused critic of various types of academics,” Pflaum said.

Her project on presidents’ spouses might be her swan song, but she’s uncertain when she will be done.

“It might be two months, one year or two years,” she said. “I get the feeling I’m stretching my rubber band out a bit.”

Her friends, on the other hand, are skeptical.

“[The rubber band] hasn’t broken,” King said. “I can’t imagine her stopping … this is the perfect thing for her.”

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