- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 17, 2015

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. (AP) - A peculiar piece of history - or rather, 50 of them - sit in Oakland University’s library, where they’ve been for decades with little fanfare.

Until recently, that is, according to The Oakland Press ( https://bit.ly/1Bp0eo1 ).

Oakland University’s Kresge Library is home to a collection of 50 pens used 50 years ago by President Lyndon B. Johnson during the 1965 legislative session to sign into law 50 major bills during the 89th Congress.

The collection of 50 bills, making up part of Johnson’s “Great Society,” aimed to increase prosperity through the elimination of poverty and racial injustice - including the Medicare Act, Voting Rights Act and Immigration Act.

At the bottom of the green-felted display containing the pens rests a plaque, which reads:

“With these fifty pens, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the foundation of the Great Society which was passed by the historic and fabulous first session of the 89th Congress.”

“Obviously, that period of time was when a lot of important acts were passed that changed lives in America for a lot of people,” said Dominique Daniel, coordinator of archives and special collections at Oakland University, the southeastern Michigan campus that sits in Rochester Hills and Auburn Hills. “It’s probably historically one of the largest periods of legislation ever achieved by one congress, by one president, and we still live today with the consequences of this legislation, like the Medicare Act.

“So it’s obviously historically very significant to have the pens that helped put all this legislation into reality,” she said.

All 50 pens from that session were mounted and donated to the university in 1966 by Billie Sunday Farnum, the congressman for the 19th district at the time in the 89th Congress, and have resided in the library’s archives ever since.

Farnum had a history in Michigan politics prior to heading to Congress for his single congressional term, which ended in 1967. Farnum was previously appointed Fair Commissioner in 1951 by Gov. G. Mennen Williams to rejuvenate the Michigan State Fair. He was appointed Michigan Assistant Secretary of State in 1955 before being promoted to Deputy Secretary of State in 1957 and was appointed Michigan Auditor General by Gov. Swainson in 1961.

Farnum had made some connections at Oakland University while serving his district, Daniel said, including working with Chancellor D.B. “Woody” Varner to organize campus events and secure grants for research.

“As soon as he was in Congress he started to take a great interest in his district and brought a lot of projects to the area regarding Oakland University,” Daniel said. “He organized lots of events, he brought the vice president, Herbert Humphrey, to the university, and he decided early on to donate his papers to the university.”

Correspondence between former university librarian Floyd Cammack and Chancellor Varner in 1966 detailed Farnum’s wish to deliver these historically significant pens to the university:

“Congressman Farnum has gone to considerable lengths to get the White House to assemble for him a framed case containing fifty pens used by the President in signing fifty major pieces of legislation by the session of Congress which ended last fall,” Varner wrote in the letter dated April 27, 1966. “It seems to be the view of Mr. Farnum that this is one of the most productive sessions of any Congress in our history and that these fifty bills represent the heart of ‘The Great Society.’ For these reasons, he has concluded that this is an item of considerable historic interest, and, indeed, it may well be.”

The letter also detailed the location of the pens at the time - on Varner’s dining room wall - and a proposal to construct a Farnum Room in light of the university’s growing collection of his items and documents.

The pens - individually - are unique in their own right.

“President Johnson used a lot of pens to sign his acts; it’s said up to 100 pens,” Daniel said. “For the Voting Rights Act, you can see him giving pens to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator (Robert) Kennedy.”

But having a collection representing such an historic legislative session in its entirety?

“That’s unique, as far as I can tell,” Daniel said.


Information from: The Oakland Press, https://www.theoaklandpress.com

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