Purdue Libraries and School of Information Studies News

Spearheading Environmental Change: A Q & A with authors Jill and Robert May

Spearheading Environmental Change: A Q & A with authors Jill and Robert May

June 7th, 2022

We talked to Jill P. May and Robert E. May, the authors of Spearheading Environmental Change: The Legacy of Indiana Congressman Floyd J. Fithian, about their approach to biography, what they learned while writing, and why the life of Floyd J. Fithian is relevant to readers today.


Q: Could you describe your book? How is this book different than a typical biography?

Bob: Spearheading Environmental Change: The Legacy of Indiana Congressman Floyd J. Fithian embeds late-twentieth-century U.S. environmental controversies and policy within a biographical framework. Although one can read this book for the life and public career of one of Indiana’s most canny politicians during the presidencies of Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan, one can also read it to explore the environmental disputes roiling the nation and especially the Midwest during the period Fithian was in the public eye — pesticides, excessive federal dam construction, growing the nation’s national parks, reining in big oil and nuclear energy, and the like. Uniquely perhaps (we know of no other biography of a prominent politician that works quite like this one), Spearheading Environmental Change highlights environmental policy and legislation, bookending Fithian’s life story around core chapters devoted exclusively to environmental concerns. This allows in-depth concentration on individual controversies rather than simply inserting information here and there as one might find in a more conventionally organized biography.

Most especially, we wanted, as Purdue University colleagues of Fithian’s who lived in northern Indiana for over forty years, to uncover the story of how he dealt as a Democratic four-term congressman representing a red district with three environmentally charged issues that greatly impacted the people he represented —issues that swirled while we resided in Lafayette, where Purdue is situated. We hoped to position Floyd and his congressional district within the overall narrative of U.S. environmental history, so that readers would not only learn about a highly talented politician’s record, but also get a sense of the flow of environmental progress and retrogression nationally in a fraught period of our history.

Jill: Floyd’s ability to continually win in a conservative Indiana congressional district as a moderate to liberal thinking Democrat not once but four times also inspired us to begin considering writing a biography. We were curious to find out how he won so many times, why he finally ended his political career. We wanted to look at the ways Floyd succeeded in Indiana, and we hoped to find out how his personal beliefs and values as well as his strong Christian upbringing, military service record and teaching at Purdue University helped shape his political career. We were intrigued by Floyd’s decision to forego a secure, tenured teaching and research position at one of America’s finest institutions of higher learning for the unpredictable and often highly stressful life of a professional politician. What drove him?


Q: What is the goal of your book? What motivated you to write it?

Bob: Really, Jill deserves entire credit for initiating this project, so I’ll let her speak for herself on this one. I will say that once she got me on board by sharing the rich materials she had seen in the Purdue archives both in terms of Floyd’s political career and told me about the fascinating environmental issues he grappled with, I got excited about working on the book with her. After all, Floyd had been my colleague on the Purdue faculty for years and someone who I greatly liked and admired (even though he made me grimace each time he exposed me to his crushing handshake!), and I’ve been worried about environmental degradation most of my life. It didn’t hurt in terms of motivation that I had visited the Hill with his congressional aide during pesticide committee hearings during his congressional tenure and been fascinated with what I had observed, or that I had attended some of his campaign events with Jill.

Jill: Our primary goal was to bring attention to the vast importance that Congress has and can have in shaping our country’s future. Although we ended up concentrating on the environmental change that has come to the Great Lakes area, we did not initially see this as our focus. Floyd had been involved in a myriad of legislative concerns and he was an expert in Russian/U.S. relations from his PhD studies. We wanted to explore how congressional members involve themselves in issues that concern their constituents, especially since their reelection depends upon their district’s concerns.


Q: You were personally acquainted with Floyd Fithian and his family. How do you think a personal relationship with the subject affects the process and result of writing his biography?

Bob: That’s an interesting question. Jill and I sought for objectivity in our writing about Floyd’s life and career, and readers will find criticism within our narrative of Floyd’s decisions and policies in cases where we believed criticism is merited. But I’ll concede that we approached our subject matter with positive predispositions. From everything we knew about Floyd from our acquaintance with him, he was an ethical politician who fought for values and policies that we mostly endorsed. Therefore, it was a labor of love in a sense to bring his story to others. Knowing Floyd’s family, moreover, gave us a leg up in the sense that we could call, phone, write or email them when we were confused about details in his personal life. And his wife Marjorie and his eldest daughter Cindy were extremely generous in sharing family photographs, many of which are reproduced in the book.

Jill: I had worked on Floyd’s first campaign for Congress in 1972, and Warren Stickle was Bob’s best friend in the Purdue history department.  He and his wife Marilyn remained some of our closest friends even after they moved. I have a good many fond and zany memories that involve Warren — it was his exuberance that first caused him to catch our attention, his ability to see the positive side of every incident. So, when I learned in 2016 that the Indiana bicentennial commemoration organizers planned to have a torch carried through the individual counties by past and present leaders, I nominated Floyd even though he was no longer alive. I believed he was one of the few Democratic national leaders who had significantly altered Indiana’s political landscape, and I felt his contributions should be recognized. I went to the Purdue University Libraries and read everything easily unearthed about Floyd. When I stumbled onto the information that the Purdue University Archives and Special Collections held his congressional records and read that they held important information on the conservation movement, I was intrigued. I wanted to use the archival materials to see what was there. Simply put, I had found a mystery that involved a personal acquaintance, and I wanted to follow the trail. But quite simply, I was not really considering our past relationships with the Fithians and the Stickles when I talked Bob into the project. I wanted to play detective, to go with whatever we found out.



Q: You previously wrote another book (Howard Pyle: Imagining an American School of Art, University of Illinois Press) together. What was different about this experience? What was similar?

Bob:  Jill has this habit of enticing me into projects way out of my comfort zone. Both projects compelled me to try to absorb and master subjects that I neither taught during my classroom career nor read heavily in previously. As a person who mostly taught and researched about America’s nineteenth-century story (especially the history of the South, the Civil War, and American territorial expansion), it was challenging for me, especially in the early stages of both projects, to get into the stuff of twentieth century art history, environmentalism, and politics. Both times, too, we had to work through our different perspectives on the process of organizing and writing the project. The fields of history and literature, which we separately embody, don’t always line up in concert on these things. In both cases, we partly argued and compromised our way to the finish line.

But there were obvious differences, too. For instance, our research for the Howard Pyle book was more incremental. In Fithian’s case, because of his generous donation of papers to the Purdue archives, we had a huge bulk of material to work with from the get-go. In the Pyle project, our research was much more a case of discovering materials here and there, and it involved far more out-of-state travel.

Jill: I think that’s a great answer! Lots of good sharing and sharp arguments! I’ll leave it at that, except to say I had written a good deal about Pyle as a writer and illustrator before we began and I was familiar with his work, so in some ways it was an easier project than Floyd was for me.


Q: What lessons or events from the life of Floyd Fithian strike you as being most relevant to readers today? Why? In what way?

Bob: One of the things that I think struck us the most from studying Floyd’s career is how excruciatingly difficult the congressional legislating process is, that issues drag on from session to session often with no likelihood of being resolved in the immediate future, if ever. This is certainly true within the environmental field, with the very issues that absorbed Floyd’s attention like nuclear power, pollution, dam deterioration and decertification, oil versus solar power, and the like, resisting conclusive resolution to this day. Even a seemingly containable issue, like growing the boundaries of a national park, might have ramifications for many years requiring new legislation. We talk a lot about congressional gridlock today; and while partisan gridlock might have been less defined during Floyd’s time on the Hill, it was often just as difficult to get legislation through because of the powers vested in committee chairs and members’ seniority.

We also learned that even in the 1970s and 1980s when Floyd served, congressmen were plagued just like today with the need to prioritize fundraising and campaigning over their legislative duties. Floyd regularly called for reforms in these areas.

Jill: For me, the most important issue is that nothing has really been solved yet concerning our environment. For instance, we have found that although Floyd is especially remembered for his legislative efforts to increase the size of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore Park during his first congressional term, much of that expansion left issues that would affect him throughout his tenure in Congress. And they continue to be unresolved. There are still conflicts between NIPSCO and environmental groups concerning the coal ash ponds at the Michigan City Generating Station. The industrialization of the area has never been completely resolved. Linked to that — for me — is the overriding issue of good political representation for any area’s constituents. We keep watching the political parties as they gerrymander districts for power, often so that the very strong politicians who work for change can be replaced with less ethical  party advocates.


Q: Is there anything that shocked or surprised you while working on this project?

Bob: Jill and I have always been inveterate newspaper/news magazine readers, so I can’t say that I was totally taken aback at any one thing we encountered in our research, but I must say I was stunned by the tactics of one local environmentalist, Connie Wick, in fighting the project of building a reservoir in the Lafayette area, not far from the Purdue campus. I had heard about her husband Joe, I think, more than about Connie, prior to undertaking this book. But Connie Wick must be one of the most colorful characters I’ve ever encountered in my research, and her interactions with Floyd, including taking a pig to one of her protests, should inspire activists everywhere. We have quite a bit about Connie Wick in our book, but she would be well worth a book in her own right.

Jill: And I was really pleasantly surprised to see how much of the environmental change that Floyd accomplished was aided by women, groups like Save the Dunes Council, and the national organizations of the Izaak Walton League, the Audubon Society, and the Sierra Club. Bravo to my newfound heroes!

Finally, I have to add that in all of our interviews with people who knew and worked with Floyd, we heard nothing but praise and strong commendation. We both are especially proud to have spent our time researching an intelligent man who turned out to be every bit as good as we thought he might be — perhaps even better than we knew before we embarked on this project. In the end, the puzzle pieces concerning Floyd’s departure from the academy revealed a man more genuinely motivated to serve his Indiana constituents while protecting the land in his district then to pursuing academic work concerning Russian and U.S. trade efforts.


You can get 30% off Spearheading Environmental Change and any other Purdue University Press book by ordering from our website and using the code PURDUE30 at checkout.

HSSE Featured Database: History Reference Center

January 23rd, 2020

Humanities, Social Science and Education Library’s Featured Database will give you a very brief introduction to the basic features of one of our specialized subscription databases. This time we’re featuring History Reference Center, brought to you by EBSCO Industries, Inc.


Access the databases off-campus with your Purdue login and password.

Focus: This database provides full text from more than 1,620 reference books, encyclopedias, and non-fiction books. There is also full text for more than 150 leading history periodicals, nearly 57,000 historical documents, and biographies for over 78,000 historical figures. The database also includes historical photos, maps, and video.

Tutorial: Click here see the basics of using History Reference Center.

Why you should know this database: This database features full text for thousands of primary source documents and informational texts.

Quick tip: Be sure to locate the “Cite” button for any article you are planning to use in your research. It will bring up a window with a drop down menu listing various citation styles. You can select the style that you need, then cut and paste the citation to your bibliography.

Related Resources:

Another database you might want to explore is:


This Featured Database comes to you from the Humanities, Social Science and Education Library. If you would like more information about this database, or if you would like a demonstration of it for a class, contact Also let us know if you know of a colleague who would benefit from this, or future Featured Databases.

Since usage statistics are an important barometer when databases are up for renewal, tell us your favorite database, and we will gladly promote it. Send an email to

Preserving Agricultural History in the Midwest

March 14th, 2019

Much of history would be forgotten if we did not have those committed to recording it.

“When I started, much of the historical information wasn’t available.” recalls Purdue professor Fred Whitford.

Now, after authoring more than 250 research, extension, and regulatory publications, delivering over 5,800 presentations to a wide array of audiences, and writing several books about the history of Indiana agriculture, Whitford is responsible for a great deal of what is known about the history of agriculture and extension in Indiana.

Whitford’s books include Enriching the Hoosier Farm Family: A Photo History of Indiana’s Early County Extension Agents; Scattering the Seeds of Knowledge: The Words and Works of Indiana’s Pioneer County Extension Agents; For the Good of the Farmer: A Biography of John Harrison Skinner, Dean of Purdue AgricultureThe Grand Old Man of Purdue University and Indiana Agriculture: The Biography of William Carroll Lattaand The Queen of American Agriculture: A Biography of Virginia Claypool MeredithThese books study the history of agriculture and extension agents at Purdue and in Indiana, often through concentrating on important figures throughout our history. (Find a flyer for the series of books here)

John Calvin Allen, professionally known as J.C., is one of those figures. He worked as a photographer for Purdue University from 1909-1952, and operated his own photography business until his death in 1976.  Allen’s photos are the source for Whitford’s upcoming book Memories of Life on the Farm: Through the Lens of Pioneer Photographer J. C. Allen (September 2019), co-authored by Neal Harmeyer an archivist at the Purdue University Archives and Special Collections. The book uses Allen’s photographs, which were taken on glass slides, to get a unique look at Indiana’s agricultural history.

“People love old pictures,” says Whitford, “it brings people back.”

This volume contains over 900 images, most never-before-seen, of men, women, and children working on the farm, which remain powerful reminders of life in rural America at the turn of the twentieth century. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the collection of photographs is the importance of the the time period they cover. They act as a historical account of a major transitional period for agriculture. “He told the story of change” says Whitford, he explains that it was a time when tractors replaced horses, and superior crops and animals were being introduced.

Why research the history of agriculture and extension in Indiana in such an expansive way? Whitford believes that the past repeats itself, and that learning from it will always have value.

“We take so many things for granted, and all of these things we take for granted had to start somewhere.” says Whitford.

Just as important, it’s a reminder of culture and mission.

“It shows what the culture of extension is, we’ve always been here to help.” says Whitford. “We are here to serve growers.”



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Memories of Life on the Farm: Through the Lens of Pioneer Photographer J.C. Allen will be available in September 2019. Get 30% off when you order directly from the Purdue University Press website and enter the code “PURDUE30” at checkout.

Celebrate the History of Purdue Libraries at Nov. 8 Event in HSSE Library

November 6th, 2018

A Look Back Exhibit in Purdue Libraries' HSSE Library, Fall 2018
“A Look Back” in the HSSE Library was designed by Purdue Libraries Professor Judy Nixon, Director of Purdue Libraries Facilities Nanette Andersson, Library Assistant Pat Whalen, and the “A Look Back”-exhibit planning team.

“A Look Back” is a new exhibit in the Humanities, Social Science, and Education (HSSE) Library that pays tribute to Purdue University’s first Library in University Hall.

The event “Celebrating the History of Purdue Libraries”–to highlight the display and commemorate Purdue Libraries’ history–is set from 3-4:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 8 in the Periodical Reading Room on the first floor of the HSSE Library. The event is open free to the public.

At 3:30 p.m., Purdue Libraries Professor Judy Nixon will provide a brief background about the exhibit and introduce David Hovde, Professor Emeritus, Purdue University Archives and Special Collections. Hovde will share his work on his book about the history of Purdue Libraries. At 4:15 p.m. attendees can take part in a tour of the 1913 stacks.

The display in HSSE Library was designed by Nixon, Director of Purdue Libraries Facilities Nanette Andersson, Library Assistant Pat Whalen, and the “A Look Back”-exhibit planning team.

“A Look Back” is part of the Purdue University’s Sesquicentennial Celebration, 150 Years of Giant Leaps. Learn more at

Purdue & Indiana’s Community: University Press Week 2016

November 17th, 2016

readup2016_newIt’s University Press Week 2016 and this year’s theme is community. University presses have long supported all communities whether they’re local, intellectual, or cultural. Purdue University Press continues to celebrate Indiana’s community with our books and projects featuring hidden stories of Hoosier heroes, Purdue traditions, and Indiana history.

We have decided to highlight books that represent the Purdue and Indiana community in our blog along with our favorite places to read them, for University Press week. It’s a treasure trove of the striking Indiana landscapes, university traditions, and biographies of famous alumni including Official Endorsed Bicentennial Projects celebrating Indiana’s rich heritage.


Read: A Place Called Turkey Run: A Celebration of Indiana’s Second State Park in Photographs and Words by Daniel P. Shepardson — Official Endorsed Legacy Project
Where: The horticulture garden near Pao Hall.

Read: Enriching the Hoosier Farm Family: A Photo History of Indiana’s Early County Extension Agents by Fredrick Whitford, Neal Harmeyer and David Hovde — Official Endorsed Legacy Project
Where: The Virginia Kelly Karnes Archives and Special Collections Research Center where you can read and also explore more Indiana and Purdue history.

Read: Slow Ball Cartoonist: The Extraordinary Life of Indiana Native and Pulitzer Prize Winner John T. McCutcheon of the Chicago Tribune by Tony Garel-Frantzen — Official Endorsed Legacy Project
Where: Enjoy a refreshing cup of coffee and calming atmosphere at a local coffeehouse.


Read: Spacewalker: My Journey in Space and Faith as NASA’s Record-Setting Frequent Flyer by Jerry Ross and John Norberg
Where: Take a break near Neil Armstrong Hall of Engineering.

Read: Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom by George Leopold — Official Endorsed Legacy Project
Where: Relax on a bench near the Class of 1939 Water Sculpture on Purdue Mall.


Read: The Deans’ Bible: Five Purdue Women and Their Quest for Equality by Angie Klink
Where:  Curl up by the fireplace in the Purdue Memorial Union on a chilly day.

Read: A University of Tradition: The Spirit of Purdue Second Edition compiled by the Purdue Reamer Club
Where: At Reflection Park next to the Bell Tower.

Read: Just Call me Orville: The Story of Orville Redenbacher by Robert W. Topping
Where: At Hicks Undergraduate Library in the study spaces.

As the holiday seasons begins find all the titles above and many more that represent several forms of community in our Winter Gift Catalog. Purdue University Press will continue to support community. Find out more on current and upcoming projects by following us on Facebook and Twitter and signing up for our Newsletter.