CAS undergraduate delves into the life of the "First Lady of American Journalism"

During the fall semester of her sophomore year, Kiara Day ’18 found herself alone with 140 boxes of documents in the Syracuse University Library, the official archive that holds the papers of the “First Lady of American Journalism” Dorothy Thompson. Intimidating?

“I was really excited,” Day relates. “It was this treasure trove of primary sources. I mean here are all these fragments of her life I’m holding in my hands—papers, journals, newspaper clippings, letters. Some of them signed by President Franklin Roosevelt.”

Day had only one weekend at Syracuse to spend in the archive, so she got busy sifting through the documents and taking photos with her cell phone.

This raw material will shape her research on Thompson who was recognized by Time magazine in 1939 as the second most influential woman in America next to Eleanor Roosevelt. Thompson was a canary in the coal mine—she was one of the first journalists to recognize the dangers of Hitler’s rise to power. Her fearless and aggressive reporting earned her the distinction of being the first American journalist to be expelled from Nazi Germany.

It’s no accident that Day gravitated to Thompson’s story. A history buff since she can remember (her father is a social studies educator in Portland, Maine), Day sees history as a living discipline that holds important contemporary lessons.

“Keeping stories alive is really important for us as humans,” she said. “With these authoritarian impulses emerging again globally, I feel as though my research weighs in on issues that are relevant now. I not only see myself contributing to history but commenting on present day things.”

Thompson is the subject of two biographies, the last one published in 1990, so Day is one of the few scholars doing a deep examination of the journalist's life. It was the type of experience she hoped for when she enrolled at UVM.

“UVM has all the resources of a big public school but the student-to-faculty ratio is more in realm of smaller liberal arts schools. The majority of my history courses have allowed for individual projects and papers, even in introductory courses my freshman year.”

At the recommendation of her advisor, professor Frank Nicosia, Day joined the College of Arts and Sciences Honors College as a sophomore. The College Honors program provides an opportunity for students to pursue two semesters of independent research under the direction of a faculty advisor, and students produce an independent project or thesis before graduating. She settled on her thesis topic last year in a class taught by Alan Steinweis, a UVM professor specializing in Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.

“I’m equally interested in German and American history and I have a minor in Holocaust Studies. I stumbled on Dorothy Thompson’s name in some of my readings and saw her life as a way of engaging all three interests,” she said. “I also had the sense that Thompson’s life was underappreciated, given her contributions in the 1930s. There are still gaps in the story.”

One of those gaps is Thompson’s Vermont connection. The journalist, who was married to Sinclair Lewis, summered in Barnard, Vt., and spent much of her own money sponsoring Jewish refugees arriving in America before World War II. Thompson hosted some of the newcomers, giving them work on her farm and helping them acclimate to a new culture. Day would love someday to learn the identities of these refugees and tell their stories.

Day has been admitted to an accelerated master’s program in history at UVM, a program that allows undergraduates to finish with an MA degree in five total years of college study. She has also received a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship through the Office of Undergraduate Research which will allow her to return to the Syracuse archive and expand her thesis project. The fellowship offers up to $5,000 to support student living and research expenses over the summer months.

After completion of her MA, Day hopes to live in Germany to perfect her language skills. Eventually she sees herself enrolling in a Ph.D. program and working in academia or in the museum world.

Right now, as an undergraduate, she has important work to do. “Dorothy Thompson really wanted to get Americans to pay attention to what was happening in Europe. There are some lessons there we need to take to heart.”

 

 

 

PUBLISHED

04-03-2017
Kevin C. Coburn
Franklin Roosevelt
A letter dated November 22, 1944, from President Franklin Roosevelt to Dorothy Thompson, the subject of Kiara Day's research. It is one of many original documents Day is combing through as she prepares her Honors thesis.