Northern Illinois University

NIU Office of Public Affairs

News Release

Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-9472

May 4, 2006

DeKalb Public Library mural wins funds
from grant application written by NIU students

DeKalb — When Chicago artist Gustaf Dalstrom discovered the mural he'd painted for DeKalb's Haish Memorial Library was too tall for its intended space, he took pen to paper to propose a solution that would make everything right.

Seventy-one years later, with the old Works Progress Administration-commissioned canvas that hangs above the DeKalb Public Library's fireplace showing signs of dirt and rips, graduate students in the NIU Department of Communicative Disorders wrote a grant proposal that would make everything right again.

They were confident of success – “It's a public work of art, and I think that people care about that and want it to stay in good shape,” said Dan Franks, one of the students in Professor Nancy Castle's class on writing grants last fall – and they were correct.

Leaders of the DeKalb County Community Foundation announced Wednesday, May 3, they have awarded a $5,000 challenge grant to the DeKalb Public Library to pay for a restoration of the mural.

Under the challenge grant, the foundation will match each dollar contributed up to $5,000 to help pay the expected bill of $10,000.

“It's a glorious day for the library and for the city of DeKalb and for WPA aficionados all over the United States,” said Dee Coover, interim director of the DeKalb Public Library. “This mural is mentioned in books, but has really not been noticed. This is our opportunity to make it well known.”

Jerry Smith, executive director of the DeKalb County Community Foundation, praised Castle's class for “restoring something with tremendous historical significance.”

“This involved a number of students in not only discovering what a local facility like the DeKalb Public Library has, but getting an opportunity to write a real-life grant proposal,” Smith said. “It's a marvelous thing that students, who many times see DeKalb as simply the home of the university, are able to go out and get into the infrastructure that is our community.”

The Chicago Conservation Co., which specializes in WPA projects, has been contracted for the restoration. Coover expects work will begin in the next few months.

Students in NIU's museum studies certificate program are working to produce informational literature on the mural that will help schoolchildren and interested community members who come to the library to watch the restoration process.

“The offer to write the grant and participate in this project was such a gift to the library,” Coover said. “It was on the back burner for many years, and all of a sudden, we had somebody who offered to bring it to the front burner. That really put into motion a project that previously lacked any momentum.”

It was one of many grant applications Castle's class submitted to several local organizations for their use, moving the course from the theoretical to the practical.

“Usually I do a ‘you're running an agency that's helping deaf people; what would you do?' project. Instead of doing that, I really sort of changed the class to a ‘how do you scout for foundation money?' project,” Castle said.

“My students are going to get degrees in deaf rehabilitation counseling, and usually those are programs that are low on funds. Even though these projects weren't about disability, the process of grant-writing is the same.”

At the same time, she became aware of the mural and its condition after a conversation with Coover, a friend. “It was like ‘Shazam!' I put two and two together,” Castle said.

Students assigned to the mural project were given a copy of a June 11, 1934, letter from the artist to Swen Parson of the Haish Memorial Library. The second page is a sketch showing library officials what parts of the mural should remain after trimming.

“I have looked over the design and think it would be badly damaged if a considerable amount were taken off the bottom,” Dalstrom wrote. “I am suggesting that the mural extend to the dark portion of the fireplace as shown in the rough sketch I am enclosing and which I think will look just as well or better than originally planned.”

The classroom assignment earned front-page coverage in the Nov. 19, 2005, DeKalb Daily Chronicle.

“I really liked the project,” Franks said. “Once we got past the mechanics of the grant and got to the nitty-gritty – the history of the mural, the history of the library – we were able to learn a lot. I didn't know there were so many WPA murals, and that so many of them had been destroyed. There's such a story in them.”

“It's the only class I've taught where the students have continued to e-mail me afterward to ask, ‘Have you heard? Have you heard?' I finally wrote back, ‘Congratulations! You did it,' ” Castle said. “The students have found this to be helpful. It's not a required competency, but morally, we feel like if we're going to prepare them for jobs of the future they need to have this skill of grant-writing.”

Other NIU-related projects receiving DeKalb County Community Foundation grants were:

  • Department of Literacy Education, $2,000 for children's books and project materials
  • School of Art, $1,000 for DVD production
  • School of Music, $1,000 for chamber choir outreach

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