Dr. Wolfensberger kept everything, gave even more

The McGoogan Library's Cameron Boettcher is tasked with unpacking, archiving, organizing, digitizing and otherwise curating the massive collection of Wolf Wolfensberger, Ph.D. (Photos by Rich Watson, UNMC Public Relations)

The McGoogan Library’s Cameron Boettcher is tasked with unpacking, archiving, organizing, digitizing and otherwise curating the massive collection of Wolf Wolfensberger, Ph.D. (Photos by Rich Watson, UNMC Public Relations)

When young Wolf Wolfensberger escaped Nazi Germany for Denmark, then later immigrated to the United States, he took a few things with him.

For the rest of his life, he kept them.

Turns out, he kept everything.

Turns out, he gave everything.

Wolf Wolfsensberger, Ph.D., was an extraordinary man. He came to America. He educated himself. He was a researcher at the former Nebraska Psychiatric Institute from 1964 to 1971, and a faculty member in the Department of Psychiatry, of what would become UNMC, during his time here. Over the course of his career, he became a world-renowned advocate for and expert on the care of the developmentally disabled.

“He revolutionized services for people with disabilities,” Mike Leibowitz, Ph.D., director of Munroe-Meyer Institute, said.

Said a UNMC release: In 1999, he was selected by representatives of seven major mental retardation organizations as one of 35 individuals worldwide who had the greatest impact on mental retardation in the 20th century.

During a period when the developmentally disabled were routinely shifted off to institutions, literally cast off from society, he recognized their humanity. He insisted they be treated as citizens, as people. He realized that not only could they benefit from living in regular society, they could contribute to that society.

When he founded ENCOR, the Eastern Nebraska Community Office on Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, “those were the first community based programs in this country,” Dr. Leibowitz said.

To say that he fought for these people is not an understatement. There were debates with other “experts” in his field, he once said, “which almost digressed to physical violence.”

He gave everything.

Check out the walls and walls of files. The collection itself takes up 1,584 square feet.

Check out the walls and walls of files. The collection itself takes up 1,584 square feet.

We know he gave everything because he kept everything. All of it, just about anything he ever read, wrote, said or thought. He saved it all. Dr. Wolfensberger was a person who made your everyday pack rat look like a piker. He didn’t just keep notes to himself scribbled on scratch paper. He kept notes – sometimes unrelated to one another – he’d scribbled on both sides of scratch paper. On napkins. Everything. A publication celebrating his career noted his collection even included “a history of institutions through postcards.”

The sheer volume of it all is staggering.

Dr. Wolfensberger had worked at a number of places. After he died in 2011, most of these places looked at his collection and wanted some of it. But only one of them wanted all of it.

The UNMC McGoogan Library of Medicine stepped forward: Munroe-Meyer Institute, the Nebraska Developmental Disabilities Council and UNMC collaborated to make possible taking it all. All the scratch paper. All the boxes. All the books. All the items and trinkets. A lifetime’s worth of stuff.

Among the collection, the passion of a man’s life’s work is palpable.

Now, it is 2014, and another man is combing through it. Another man is starting to feel that passion seeping into his bones. Another man may be finding his life’s work.

Of all the rarities within Dr. Wolfensberger’s collection, Cameron Boettcher believes he has found the rarest of them all.

“A history major with a job,” Boettcher said, and grinned. That would be him.

This is his job. This collection. All this stuff. Wolf Wolfensberger. Boettcher spreads his arms and smiles, the wonder of it all washing over him. He is home. He ducks his head and gets back to work.

Boettcher has put his own stamp on the collection. One needs to keep his sense of humor when taking on a job this big.

Boettcher has put his own stamp on the collection. One needs to keep his sense of humor when taking on a job this big.

Boettcher, a library assistant in the McGoogan Library of Medicine, tackles his task with a young man’s enthusiasm and a novice’s wide eyes and bursting heart. This is new to him. All of it. Wolf Wolfensberger? Never heard of him. Is that even a real person?

The treatment of the developmentally disabled. A few short months ago, he knew next to nothing. Now?

“Did you know …?!” he will begin, before launching into indignities from decades past.

The passion is seeping into Boettcher’s bones.

It’s all here. Over there, half a small library’s worth of bookshelves. Their contents? Some, seem obvious. Others … a Danielle Steele romance novel? A Dungeons and Dragons adventure fantasy? Each book has tucked within it a sheet of paper, neatly typewritten. Dr. Wolfensberger’s thoughts on what he’d read. His own synopsis, what it meant to him. What a word on page 236 might have meant to those for whom he spent a lifetime working. Every book has a summary; why he kept it.

Why he kept everything.

There were 35 filing cabinets. Hundreds of boxes; 450 boxes, in fact, containing books, monographs, papers, artifacts, recording tapes, CDs, journals and photographs. There were 4,550 books and monographs, 598 journal volumes, and thousands of file folders.

The collection itself takes up 1,584 square feet. “The size of a house!” McGoogan Library head of special collections John Schleicher said.

Among Dr. Wolfensberger's rarities, a series on Nazi atrocities.

Among Dr. Wolfensberger’s rarities, a series on Nazi atrocities.

Over here there’s a shelf filled with what Boettcher calls “a Ph.D. in a box.” Dr. Wolfensberger had done all the research on a certain topic, written it up, and then, just filed it away. Never published it. Never did anything with it. Just, a Ph.D.’s worth of work, here. In a box. There are several of them.

Boettcher has met with members of Dr. Wolfensberger’s family, great people. Grateful people. Grateful that all of this has found a home, a home that will treat it like the treasure it is. Grateful that home isn’t theirs. Dr. Wolfensberger would send his kids to garage sales, when they were younger, armed with lists of rare things he was on the lookout for. His daughter remembers, when she was a girl, her nightstand piled high with her father’s books, so full was their house with all this stuff.

Why save it? Was the man just a hoarder? No, Boettcher said, going through it all now, it’s clear it was more than that.

“I think he knew he was important,” he said. Dr. Wolfensberger knew what he was doing mattered, would matter. Still matters today.

Boettcher hooked on to the McGoogan Library as an intern. Then, he was a temporary worker. He liked the work. He was a history major with a job. Then, as the acquisition of the Wolfensberger collection came together, they asked him. Would he like to work here, at UNMC? Would he like to do this?

He would. He absolutely would.

Now, this is what he does. Wolf Wolfensberger. UNMC has sent him to archivists’ training. He’s in this stuff every day, waist-deep. The goal is to wade through it, to move and organize and digitize, to sift this vast collection into something the public can appreciate. To go through these books and boxes and napkins and postcards and scraps of paper and make the genius within available. So the world can see who Wolf Wolfensberger was, what he did and what his work meant.

Combing through it all, Boettcher finds himself living a Bob Seger lyric: What to leave in/what to leave out …

“I get to decide what the world gets to see,” he said. “Right now it’s all in a back room, 50 years of advances for the developmentally disabled.”

Boettcher began knowing nothing about Dr. Wolfensberger or his work, but in going through it has discovered a new passion.

Boettcher began knowing nothing about Dr. Wolfensberger or his work, but in going through the collection, has discovered a newfound passion.

Here comes the passion again. Because of Dr. Wolfensberger’s efforts, Boettcher said, people who otherwise would have been shipped to institutions are now in classrooms, working, living lives.

The collection, “a unique, one-of-a-kind resource without parallel in the academic world,” retired library director Nancy Woelfl, Ph.D., said.

“Having that collection provides an amazing opportunity for students across all of our colleges,” Dr. Leibowitz said.

Boettcher looked out over the collection again. He shook his head and grinned. It’s amazing. Wolf Wolfensberger. That man kept everything.

He gave even more.

Is there a sexpert in the house?

Drs. Irwin and Jawed-Wesel interacted with the public at a July 8 Science Cafe.

Drs. Irwin and Jawed-Wessel interacted with the public at a July 8 Science Cafe.

Sexpert. “It’s a funny word,” said Jay Irwin, Ph.D., associate director of the Midlands Sexual Health Research Collaborative (MSHRC), housed in the Department of Health Promotion, Social & Behavioral Health in the College of Public Health.

It is a funny word. Nevertheless, Dr. Irwin has agreed to take it on as a mantle. At least that’s the way he and his fellow panelists are billed at periodic Science Cafes that tackle the subjects of sex, sexuality, gender issues and sexual health. They’re the sexperts.

Dr. Jawed-Wessel listened as a member of the audience contributed to the discussion.

Dr. Jawed-Wessel listened as a member of the audience contributed to the discussion.

How does one achieve the rank of sexpert?

“I would say at least some basic training in human sexuality and being comfortable with the title,” Dr. Irwin said. So, it’s an honorary title, but not just an honorary title. There should be academic/scientific training involved. That schmoozy guy at a party going around calling himself a sexpert?

“I’d ask to see some credentials,” Dr. Irwin said.

That guy’s probably a pervert.

But being a sexpert is not all glamour – writing academic papers, conducting research surveys and headlining Science Cafes.

Anyone with a profession – doctor, plumber, author of incredibly compelling Lookin’ at U profiles – can sometimes want to unplug and think about something else. Lawyers, for example, sometimes complain about getting bugged at parties for free legal advice. Do sexperts ever want to just talk about something other than sex?

Christopher Fisher, Ph.D.

Christopher Fisher, Ph.D.

“I was at a gas station,” said Christopher Fisher, Ph.D., UNMC assistant professor of public health and director of the MSHRC. He was minding his own business, looking for some beef jerky or some chips, when a woman yelled out: “Hey, you’re the guy from that thing!”

(It’s rarely good to be the guy from that thing.)

And the woman started enthusiastically asking him about sexually transmitted infections (STI).

Now THAT’S a full-service gas station.

“I did stop and talk to her,” Dr. Fisher said. “But I was just there to buy snacks!”

And physicians complain about being on call. Sexpert: it’s not just a job, but a mission to serve.

Dr. Irwin addressed a full house at the sexperts' recent Science Cafe.

Dr. Irwin addressed a full house at the sexperts’ recent Science Cafe.

I went to a recent Science Café to see sexperts in (ahem) action. This time the panelists were Dr. Irwin and Sofia Jawed-Wessel, Ph.D., another MSHRC assistant director. Dr. Irwin’s research interest is in health status and health care of LGBT individuals and in sexual and gender identity. Dr. Jawed-Wessel studies the sex lives of pregnant and postpartum couples.

“I come from a very pleasure-focused, sex-positive point of view,” she said.

Hi-yo!

They threw the floor open to questions. One young man raised his hand immediately. Then, question answered, we waited a minute or so for the ice to break and someone else to step forward. The same guy immediately raised his hand again.

It turns out, we need sexperts. There’s a lot of misinformation out there. As Dr. Jawed-Wessel said at one point, “There’s misinformation even at the doctor level.”

But the sexperts are helping there, too. They give presentations to UNMC students. These students master a tremendous amount of information, Dr. Irwin said. “But most of it is very clinical. Not so much on how to talk to people.”

A patient’s level of “outness,” for example, may be important. (That’s a scientific term, “outness.”)

Sexperts in action: important, but not quite as exciting as it sounds.

Sexperts in action: important, but not quite as exciting as it sounds.

The questions kept coming. One silver-haired gentleman seized the microphone. He emphatically stated that young people should not think it’s icky that their grandparents have sex. Old people have sex! And it’s beautiful!

It was unclear whether he was actually there for Science Café night at the Slowdown or if this was just his latest stop as he made this announcement at every bar in town. Either way, the sexperts nodded appreciatively.

Afterward, more people came up to them. Asked more questions, delivered more declarative statements. They were surrounded by people. People who wanted to talk to them about gender identity, or sexual health. This is the life of a sexpert. It’s rewarding. But not as sexy as you’d think.

Listen to the podcast of the July 8 Science Cafe featuring the sexperts, below.

Rocket men

Paul Paulman, M.D., professor of family medicine and part-time rocket man. (Photos by Kevin Trojanowski, The Heartland Organization of Rocketry)

Paul Paulman, M.D., professor of family medicine and part-time rocket man. (Photos by Kevin Trojanowski, The Heartland Organization of Rocketry)

Theirs is a dangerous hobby, in more ways than one.

They’ve survived some close calls. Don Johnson, Ph.D., associate professor of pathology and microbiology, once noticed a highway patrolman driving alongside him for 10 miles, down I-80, trying to decide whether Dr. Johnson had an armored missile in the back of his pickup.

Paul Paulman, M.D., professor of family medicine, realized, too late, that he probably shouldn’t be picking up someone at the airport with a bed full of rockets under his truck’s camper top.

“I thought, What if they decide to look in the back?” Dr. Paulman said. “I’m going to be going to that little room.”

It’s a dangerous hobby.

They launch rockets. Real rockets.

OK, not manned rockets. But real rockets, just the same. With explosives, and little computers and airspace clearance from the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration).

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Don’t worry, they stress safety. Drs. Johnson and Paulman are members of national organizations and are part of a rocket club, THOR (The Heartland Organization of Rocketry), that includes aerospace engineers who work at Offutt Air Force Base.

You know, rocket scientists.

So, who is smarter? UNMC scientists or rocket scientists? Well, in this instance …

“They advise us a lot,” Dr. Paulman said.

“They kind of look down on us as biologists,” Dr. Johnson said with a laugh.

Don Johnson, Ph.D.

Don Johnson, Ph.D.

Their expertise is more black-and-white: “With physics and rocketry,” Dr. Paulman said, “you know when you are successful. In biology and medicine, you may not see results.”

Drs. Johnson and Paulman design and build their own rockets. They launch them when the weather is nice, but they work on them all year long.

They use the same explosives that were used with the space shuttles. They’re licensed to launch them as high as 20,000 feet.

They were both interested in rockets as boys, but then years went by. And then …

“I got back into it when my kids were a little younger,” Dr. Paulman said.

“Me, too,” Dr. Johnson said.

“It was a cool thing to do together. Now I launch with my grandkids,” Dr. Paulman said.

“For me, it’s something my son and I can do together,” Dr. Johnson said.

“His son is the best rocket tracker in the club,” Dr. Paulman said.

Søren Johnson, 15, the best rocket tracker in the club, with his National Association of Rocketry Level 1-approved test rocket.

Søren Johnson, 15, the best rocket tracker in the club, with his National Association of Rocketry Level 1-approved test rocket.

“He’s got good eyes,” Dr. Johnson said.

“And he’s determined,” Dr. Paulman said.

Good thing. Losing a rocket isn’t like losing a golf ball.

“Oh my gosh,” Dr. Paulman said. It’s a little more expensive than that.

But, oh, it’s fun.

“It combines engineering and propulsion and aerodynamics, recovery, electronics. Things have to work right,” Dr. Paulman said.

“They say, when the space shuttle goes up there are 50,000 things that can go wrong,” Dr. Johnson said.

“We’ve found a number of them,” Dr. Paulman said.

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So, how are their families about how much time and money they spend on rockets?

“Tolerant,” Dr. Paulman said.

“It’s better than going to the bars,” Dr. Johnson said.

“There are worse hobbies,” Dr. Paulman said.

“There’s never been an accident,” Dr. Johnson said.

Launches are open to the public. If you are interested in joining the club or attending a launch, contact Dr. Johnson or Dr. Paulman.