Tuesday, January 13, 2009

There may not be gold in them thar' hills...

but there are names on them thar' tiles. In the late 1990s, the University of Chicago administration approved the replacement of the Oriental Institute roof. The project ultimately took two summers and something in the neighborhood of two million dollars. This was not at all a cosmetic matter--the western outer roof, in particular, had sags between the beams that were easily visible from the center of the University's quads. I'm not talking about depressions that would entice Tony Hawk to pull out his skateboard, but they were bad enough, especially for those seated underneath them.

The project took place over the summers of 2000 and 2001, managed for the contractor by an exceedingly affable Hoosier named Malcolm and quarterbacked--superlatively and (characteristically) without complaint--for the Institute by Ray Tindel. It was a big enough deal to merit the lede in an Annual Report Introduction and inspired a nifty painting by Mark McMahon that was originally featured in the University of Chicago Magazine, which I happily cadged for the Annual Report cover 2000-2001, for a reasonable fee.

At some point, no doubt inspired by the ethos of the Institute and its focus on inscriptions of one kind or another (and this my personal favorite), I came up with the idea of having people remember themselves in writing on the undersides of the clay tiles that adorned the roof, old and new. I put a little bit of my own cash into determining what was most lasting, ranging from nail polish to a variety of paints (including the battleship gray favored by the US Navy) before determining that Sharpies were highly durable. I then bought twenty of those bad boys, on the Institute's nickel.

Theo van den Hout and Emily Teeter generously supplied appropriate Hittite and Egyptian encomia, and letters were sent to all Institute faculty, staff, volunteers, NELC students and Associate Members, along with the Visiting Committee. I recall about 400 letters being sent, and receiving responses from about 100 or 120 people. Most responses simply asked for a name to be written under either the Hittite or Egyptian elements, which graduate students Joe Daniels, Brett McClain, and John Nielson executed. There were a few exceptions, of course: one VC member asked that his recently-passed mother be noted, while another wanted to recall his first wife, who died in a plane crash. There is no chance that I will be more specific about those who responded.

The tiles in question are located near the west peak of the roof, above the Morse Genius Reading Room. I do not know whether our Sharpies will survive the decades and the elements, but I sure hope so. I myself took the opportunity to remember my father, who died when I was in my early twenties.

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