Long-Lost Documents Found in Basement of Burns Tower

Apr 11, 2021
Burns tower

By Liliana López

On Friday, March 26th, a novel and remarkable discovery was made on Pacific’s Stockton campus. An old safe in the basement of Burns Tower, thought to be empty, was finally pried open to reveal several old documents inside, dating back as far as 1851. 

President Callahan was on-site during the ongoing process of the renovation of Burns Tower. After observing the old safe tucked away in a corner of the basement, Callahan expressed curiosity about it, and realized that, “Stockton Fire [Department] is here...they can open up the safe for us with the jaws of life.” 

Most of the documents in the safe concern Pacfic history. Robert Burns (after whom the Tower is named), was president of Pacifc from 1946 to 1971, as well as an historian. During the early years of his presidency, he completed his M.A. in history at Pacific, where he wrote the thesis The First Half-Century of the College of the Pacific. The newest item in the collection is from 1971, the same year as former President Burns’ death. This led Mike Wurtz, Head of Special Collections and Archives at Pacific, to believe that the safe had not been opened since then. Most likely, Burns was using these materials for his personal research on the university’s history, and did not tell anyone about the safe before his passing. 

Among the sources are meeting minutes from the university’s founding years, a leather satchel containing real estate papers, the university constitution, a student-composed code of honor, and various financial ledgers from the 1920s to the 50s. Especially interesting is a book full of meeting notes dated from 1851, which shows what is most likely the “very first use of the term ‘University of the Pacific,’” says Wurtz. 

Not all items found in the safe, however, are institutional documents. There were also personal items, some belonging to an O.H. O’Neill. O’Neill graduated from Pacific in 1864 with a degree in medicine. His records of matriculation and lecture cards (used to track attendance) were among the personal items found in the safe. Others included pins from various honors societies, a gifted set of mid-century butter knives, and ancient Babylonian tablets. 

Though the oldest documents found in the safe are from 1851, the tablets are obviously far older, dating to about 4,000 years in the past. The tablets were sent to Burns, who wanted to try his hand at translating them, by his friend Edgar J. Banks, who is one of the inspirations for the character Indiana Jones. 

The find was an unprecedented one for Pacific. As stated by President Callahan in his interview with a local news station, “this is really…[what] captures peoples’ imaginations.”