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UI dean delves into Iowa’s history

BY JULIANA FABIANO | JUNE 21, 2011 7:20 AM

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Twenty-five years ago, Tom Baker was inspired to write a book. Back then, he was a humble grad student in the University of Iowa’s history program. Today he’s the UI associate dean of students — and he’s finally written that book.

Titled Born Unto a House Divided, the book concerns the sociological characteristics of 19th-century Iowa. And his love for history drove the research.

“I like the 19th century because the population was so diverse,” he said, noting that in the state of Iowa, even though most people were white, the language, the religion, and the population were multicultural.

The book focuses on four families from separate countries of origin and follows their lives leading up to the American Civil War.

Baker, a Humboldt native, said geography plays a large role in the book, noting the families he profiled settled in different parts of Iowa — from Dubuque to Davenport to south-central Iowa to the region north of Newton.

“Geographic identity after the war was predominantly people thinking of themselves as either Northerners or Southerners,” Baker said. “However, pre-Civil War Iowans thought of themselves as Westerners, so it was important to study how geographic identity changed things.”

The history buff began his research by examining how people who had moved to Iowa from Germany or Ireland responded to living in this country. He looked at voting records and how the second and third generations adapted. He traveled to other states, such as Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana, where some of the families first arrived from overseas.

The process of researching and writing the book has taken Baker four years and still isn’t complete.

Nineteen chapters are written — two more to go, he said. But it’s a process — noting that he rewrote one chapter four times.

“I am not a natural writer, so I have to go back and re-draft constantly,” he said. “I wouldn’t be writing it if I couldn’t work on something, sleep on it, and then decide if I like it or not.”

Wife Neva Baker agreed the book has taken a heavy toll on Baker’s time.

“It is something he has devoted a lot of time and attention to,” she said. “He is certainly very well-versed in the facts.”

Baker said once he is satisfied with his production he will consult with colleagues and friends with how to move forward.

One colleague, student-conduct officer Kieran Leopold, has worked with Baker since 2009.

“He’s been one of my mentors for a number of years,” Leopold said.

He praised Baker’s extensive breadth of knowledge not only regarding the UI but also regarding higher education.

“He’s amazing to work with,” Leopold said. “He offers valuable insight whether it’s a simple question or in-depth procedures. He always has an answer.”

And though he spends his days working with the Threat Assessment Team, communicating with the residence halls’ staffs, and working with the UI police, his passion for history endures.

“Once a social historian, always a social historian,” he said.


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