History with heart: Robert Cox, head of UMass Special Collections and University Archives, dies at 61

  • Robert Cox, who was head of the University of Massachusetts Special Collections and University Archives for over 15 years, died May 11 of sarcoma. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/UMASS AMHERST

Staff Writer
Published: 5/28/2020 7:54:30 AM

AMHERST — Robert Cox never sought notice, according to those who knew him. But family, coworkers and friends recalled Cox, head of the University of Massachusetts Special Collections and University Archives for over 15 years, as someone whose influence on the archives and those around him was lasting and profound.

“Rob was a unique combination of absolute brilliance and an incredible breadth and depth of knowledge,” said Aaron Rubinstein, acting head of SCUA, noting that Cox’s multiple degrees — spanning history, poetry, library science, geology and paleontology — “only scratch the surface of the knowledge he had.”

Cox, 61, died May 11 of sarcoma. He lived in Easthampton with his wife, Danielle Kovacs; their daughter, Phoebe; and their three cats. 

Along with his wealth of knowledge, Cox is also remembered for his humble nature and talent for forging connections between individuals and ideas. 

When Cox arrived at SCUA in 2004, the archives did house notable collections, such as the W. E. B. Du Bois Papers, but they were in a “modest beginnings” phase, said Kovacs, who is curator of collections at SCUA.

“From those sort of modest beginnings, he transformed the way that we documented the movement of social change,” she said, “and the way that we’re used to researchers around the world.”

Cox never flaunted his accomplishments, according to Kovacs and Rubinstein, preferring to highlight those of his team as a whole. When creating finding aids for the archives, Cox would often list his former cats’ names — I. Eliot Wentworth and Dexter Haven — as authors, as he felt uncomfortable taking personal credit for what he felt were collaborative efforts, Rubinstein recounted.

Prior to coming to UMass, Cox was the keeper of manuscripts and director of scholarship and technology at the Philadelphia-based American Philosophical Society. While the UMass archives was a smaller entity with less funding, Cox saw an opportunity to for “the freedom to create this renowned collection,” Rubinstein said.

Cox’s impact on the archives was “profound,” he added, in terms of both content and volume. Under Cox’s leadership, the archives acquired 75% of its current materials.

His varied areas of focus reflect what was a penchant for connecting seemingly counterintuitive subjects, Rubinstein said. And Cox’s ability to forge connections between people also played a vital role in creating the archives as they exist today.

“Rob created a community not just of boxes and stuff, but of the people who were represented in those boxes,” Rubinstein said. “They felt connected to him, and as a result, I think, to each other.”

Kovacs echoed this sentiment — Cox was guided by the idea that many activists were connected by a variety of issues, she said, rather than just one subject matter.

“He must have been on to something, because every person he spoke with was like, ‘You get us, you’re right,’” Kovacs said.

Documenting activism 

Lois Ahrens, founding director of the Northampton-based Real Cost of Prisons Project, met Cox around 2006, when he was reaching out to local organizers and activists to see if they would be interested in giving their papers to the special collections. 

When he contacted Ahrens, whose national organization focuses on ending extreme prison sentencing and damaging confinement conditions, she expected to meet with Cox for about 20 minutes amid the busy schedule of a new director. Instead, they ended up talking for two hours.

“He knew everything about almost everything, like science, literature, poetry,” Ahrens said. “So once we started talking, we could just talk and talk and talk.”

In general, Cox “really went out of his way to reach out to the community,” Ahrens said, adding that he had a knack for convincing people that their papers did have historical value, particularly in terms of social movements in western Massachusetts.

“That’s important not just for now, but for hundreds of years from now,” Ahrens said about documenting such activism. “I think that there would be many, many people in western Mass who, when they died, who knows what would have happened to their papers?” 

Soon after their first meeting, Ahrens contacted Cox again about personal papers and other materials she had acquired belonging to Tiyo Attallah Salah-El, a friend of Ahrens’ who, while serving a life sentence in a Pennsylvania prison, became a musician, composer and political theorist.

Even though Salah-El was not from Massachusetts — the area of focus for the archives — Cox needed no convincing to take on the project, according to Ahrens. The result, Ahrens said, was the first known, completed archive at a public institution focusing on the decades-long experience of someone in incarceration — and it was also an example of how Cox’s character influenced his work.

“He had this huge intellect that went in all these directions and accomplishments, but it was driven by heart,” Ahrens said.

“People always use the term brilliant, but he was brilliant,” she added. “He was brilliant in a very humanistic way, so that made him very unique.”

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.
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