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Published: Friday, 12/31/2004

Alumnus' history of MSU is a labor of love

BLOOMFIELD HILLS, Mich. - Next year is bound to be a big one for Michigan State University, which tomorrow inaugurates its first woman president, Lou Anna Simon, and which will spend all year celebrating its 150th anniversary.

University of Michigan fans will privately mutter, "so what?" After all, U-M has had a woman president for several years, and was founded long before. Ann Arbor has more money, more prestige, and at least temporarily, a better football team. And like MSU, Ann Arbor has its own loyal corps of alumni.

But what they don't have is Bruce McCristal, who has just written and published the best comprehensive history of any of the state's universities. The Spirit of Michigan State is not only a useful reference book, it is an absolutely beautiful one; coffee-table sized, lavishly illustrated, organized in chronological order, with little capsule stories and biographies.

"This was my retirement project," a trim Mr. McCristal said with a laugh. He looks considerably younger than a man who graduated from the East Lansing campus half a century ago. Actually, he was essentially weaned on the campus. His father, King McCristal, arrived in East Lansing as a professor of health and physical education in 1937 before Bruce entered kindergarten. Michigan State College, as it was then called, was essentially still a small agricultural school.

But in the years after World War II, it rapidly expanded into a mega-university, largely because of the shrewd planning of John Hannah, who realized hordes of returning World War II veterans would want to go to college, and that if he built an athletic program, a great university might follow.

Watching MSU expand before his eyes was a shaping experience for Bruce McCristal, who went on to serve as a pilot in the U.S. Air Force and then to have a distinguished career in public relations, much of it at General Motors, where he ended his career as director of worldwide employee communications. When he left the corporation in 1992, he immersed himself in the MSU archives.

There, he spent "hundreds and hundreds of hours." There was a previous history of MSU, published by the school for its centennial in 1955. It was illustrated mainly with small black-and-white photos of men in suits, and was written in a suitably dry fashion by a history professor.

The Spirit of Michigan State is anything but that. Similarly illustrated books of its size tend to sell for about $75; this one retails for $49.95, but they'll reduce that by $10 if you order it from the web site, www.spiritofmichiganstate.com.

When I first saw it, I assumed it had been heavily subsidized by MSU and published by the campus press. It was neither. The MSU Press had other projects in motion, "so I learned how to become a publisher," Mr. McCristal said. In addition to all his man-hours, he paid to have the book typeset in Arizona and printed in, of all places, China, and then started selling them.

He doesn't want to talk about what this set him back, but there isn't the slightest chance he will recoup his investment; he is donating every dollar to MSU. Though he has a fairly ruddy complexion, he clearly bleeds green and white.

The U-M may have Arthur Miller among its alums, but when it comes to writerly devotion, its hard to imagine that they can top MSU's Homer. What was his favorite Spartan anecdote? "Hard to say," but one great one is a little secret story of how the school got to be a football powerhouse.

During World War II, John Hannah badly wanted to get into the Big Ten, but knew he'd have to prove State could play with the big boys. So he enlisted then-Michigan Gov. Harry Kelly in an effort to persuade Notre Dame's president to agree to play a regular series with them. "This was at the height of World War II, during rationing, and Mrs. Kelly pulled three priceless steaks out of the freezer."

Meat matters. Notre Dame started coming to East Lansing, and State got into the Big Ten. Mr. McCristal has several other books he plans to write about the school. If U-M had any way of cloning him, they'd be crazy not to do it.

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Blanchard for Democratic Party chairman? Some people scoffed at the news that former Gov. Jim Blanchard was interested in being the next Democratic National chairman. But the idea may not be so far-fetched.

Mr. Blanchard, now a well-connected Washington lawyer, is broadly acceptable to all factions. He is energetic, in a good position to be an honest broker, and perhaps most important, is not a candidate for president.

Howard Dean, perhaps the front-runner for the chairmanship, clearly wants to run again.

Insiders close to Mr. Blanchard say he would love the job, which will be filled in February, but won't formally run unless he thinks he has a good chance of winning, and has solid support from the nation's Democratic governors.



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