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Eugene Power: Long Way From Retirement

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Power Holds Rare Volume On John Smith And Pocahontas
News photo by Robert Chase

Eugene Power: Long Way From Retirement

Staff Reporter

What's new with Eugene Power?

Power is one of Ann Arbor's better-known citizens, but he hasn't been in the limelight nearly as much in recent years as he was in the days when he headed University Microfilms and sat on the U-M Board of Regents.

Of course, with actors, dancers and musicians performing almost nightly at Power Center for the Performing Arts (for which he gave a few million dollars) the name "Power" remains in the public eye.

But what is Power himself doing? Sitting in a rocking chair? Nodding by the fireplace? Not at all. A visit with him in his office on Plymouth Road convinces one of that.

Although he left the chairmanship of University Microfilms in 1970 at the Xerox Corp. retirement age of 65, Power is far from considering himself retired. He owns a radio station in Colorado, a hotel in Traverse City, has investments to manage, and sits on several boards of directors.

"No, I'm not retired," he reiterates.

"It seems to me there should be places for older people with experience and judgment, even though they don't have all the vigor they once had," he adds.

And speaking of vigor, Power still plays water polo twice a week.

He retains his keen interests in education, philanthropy, and the arts -- and maybe these have even branched out a bit.

"When I left University Microfilms, I decided to devote myself to projects for the good of my fellow man," says Power. "The Power Foundation had been set up for that purpose and some of my time is devoted to running it."

The Power Foundation charter states its purposes: to aid projects that encourage human development, and alleviate factors that constrain it toward creative and innovative endeavors, and to help individuals realize their potential.

Power is especially interested in two projects the Foundation is supporting: population control activities and a student exchange program between the U-M and Cambridge University in England.

"Nothing could be plainer that that the world will not have the resources to support its population if it keeps on growing at the present rate," observes Power.

The scholarship program is intended to foster understanding between the United States and Great Britain. Each year the U-M sends one graduate to study at Magdalene College, Cambridge, and one Cambridge student comes to Ann Arbor.

"Each scholarship is for a two-year term," says Power, "so four students are always on scholarship."

As the founder and developer of University Microfilms, Power has a strong interest in communications and the benefits brought by their development.

"Growth of communications has had an enormous effect in breaking down barriers of all sorts," he says.

He regrets he had to retire from the chairmanship of University Microfilms at age 65, because he feels he still had a lot to give.

Especially, he was interested in developing his long-held idea of publishing books on demand -- even printing single copies as wanted.

"It's something that's possible because of the nature of microfilming and xerography," he notes. Some of the same technical breakthroughs which have advanced communications also have been used to provide the historian of the future with vast amounts of raw material. Power's own baby, University Microfilms, has been a leader in this, of course.

"I was over at the Bentley Library just this morning to help with a microfilming problem," he says. "They told me that Jerry Ford's collection of papers for the two and a half years of his presidency will be as great as what FDR accumulated in 13 years."

"Yet," he says regretfully, "so many important things will not survive. Vital records will crumble into dust because of the paper they were recorded on. Other important things are not even recorded, such as telephone conversations or casual exchanges of words in informal circumstances.

"Sometimes these are decisive communications. I know they were when I was on the Board of Regents," he adds.

He notes the difficulties the U-M is having getting the money it requests from the Legislature, and observes, "A great university is really a very fragile thing -- very difficult to create but easy to destroy."

"Everyone thinks he is an expert on education. Usually he thinks the kind of education he received is the best," he adds.

The arrival of a News photographer brings out another Power interest -- photography. They exchange opinions on cameras, film, and techniques, you find out that the color photo enlargements on the walls are pictures taken by Power himself.

Most striking is the group of African scenes in the reception room which the visitor notices first.

"I've taken 4,000 pictures in Africa," says Power. Are these the cream of the crop? "No, just a random selection," he replies. East Africa has had a strong attraction for Power and he has gone of four safaris there.

Another of his loves is Eskimo art, and he was the first to import it into the United States, back in 1953.

Many Eskimo carvings dot the office, but there are a few Eskimo prints too, and Power draws the visitor's attention to one especially -- in which the artist depicts, with amazing force and economy of line, a polar bear swimming in a patch of blue water in the crack of an ice floe.

"It was done by Nivaaksiak, who was also a great carver," says Power, and then he tells the story of Nivaaksiak's death on the ice in the Arctic, how other Eskimos thought it was brought about by a spirit bear, and how the circumstances contrived to support such a belief.

"But it was probably a heart attack," says Power.

"Do you like books?" Power asks, and when the answer is yes, he adds, "Well, so do I -- obviously, indicating the many lengthy and crowded bookshelves in his office.

He leads the visitor to a collection he prizes especially -- facsimile copies of first editions of books giving eyewitness accounts of the spread of civilization across the North American continent. The facsimiles were made when Power was at University Microfilms.

Here is John Smith's account of his settlement of Virginia. Power opens it to Page 49 and reads aloud Smith's famous account of how he was saved from death be the intervention of Pocahontas.

Nearby is the famous account by Spanish bishop Bartolome Las Casas of the treatment of the Indians during the conquest of Mexico. And Henry Schoolcraft's story of his travels by canoe among the Indians of the Great Lakes region. A facsimile stamped 1894 of Frederick Jackson Turner's landmark book, "The Frontier in American History." A two-volume "History of California," published in 1759. And many more.

The visitor, looking at a book which includes a first-hand account of the massacre at Michilimackinac, remarks that for a book published in 1809, the type appears surprisingly modern.

Power agrees, and goes on to reveal another of his interests -- typography and fine printing. On the north wall of his office, we see a substantial collection of books on type faces.

A recent major project of Power's, undertaken with Princeton philosopher Julian P. Boyd (a fellow member of the American Philosophical Society), was to raise the funds to enable the Royal Oak Foundation to buy at auction in England the site of the Battle of Hastings, so that it might be preserved for posterity.

A whirlwind campaign was required to raise the necessary funds, but that is one of the things that Power excels at. The drive succeeded, naturally, and the purchase was made last June 24.

Power tells about the site, part farm land, part village, and of the Battle Abbey that William the Conqueror built there in fulfillment of a pre-battle vow. Then he muses:

"Suppose the tide of battle had swung the other way, as it threatened to do? Suppose the chance arrow had not killed Harold (leader of the English forces)? Suppose the English had won? How would it have changed the course of history?"

Power considers for a moment the great role chance has played in the affairs of societies.

"And in the affairs of individuals, too," he continues. "During World War II, when I was journeying to England, I was bumped from a military plane that was to have taken me on the last leg of the trip -- from Lisbon. The plane crashed on the south coast of England and all aboard were killed."

It's time to leave and you ponder the fickleness of fate as Power escorts you to the elevator. And you decide that although chance plays its part in the affairs of men, people do a lot to make things happen, too.

People like Eugene Power.