President Frenk discusses inspiration behind “Firsts at UM” event

President Frenk peruses the first published Ibis Yearbook, which is featured in an archives exhibit during the Firsts at UM event Wednesday evening in the Newman Alumni Center. Hallee Meltzer // Photo Editor

The first charter to the University of Miami, a photo of the first faculty and the first Heisman Trophy the Hurricanes ever won were on display at the Newman Alumni Center Wednesday afternoon for Firsts at UM, an event leading up to President Julio Frenk’s inauguration on Friday.

Several dozen images and historically valuable items were exhibited throughout the Alumni Center for members of the UM community, including people who accomplished “firsts” at the school, such as Dr. Norman Kenyon, president of the first graduating class from the medical school and Professor Whittington Johnson, the first African-American professor at UM, along with faculty, students and relatives of past administrators.

President Frenk took the stage after an introduction by history professor Donald Spivey and explained the inspiration behind Firsts at UM: his grandmother.

Mariana Frenk-Westheim fled Germany for Mexico and lived to the age of 106, President Frenk told the audience. She was a writer, lecturer, museum expert and translator, and she kept a book of “firsts” throughout her life.

“So she basically says, ‘Throughout my life, I have had a collection of first times.’ And this is a woman over 100 and she says, ‘And yet, the number of first times is going down, but my collection is still growing,’” he said. “There was this curiosity to keep marking the first things.”

President Frenk said this inspired him to start his own collection, specifically of his new experiences as the president of a university.

“I started my own collection of first times at the U and it’s been growing exponentially this last five-and-a-half months. So it’s a very, very, very healthy collection and I’m sure there’s many more to come,” he said.

If he wanted to, President Frenk could even write his presidency down as the first of its kind at UM. He is the first Latino president of the university, a fact that tugs on a thread of plans throughout UM’s entire history.

Historian, alumna and trustee Arva Moore Parks joined President Frenk onstage to discuss the history of the university and how George Merrick – the founder of Coral Gables and UM and the subject of Parks’s recent book – saw the university as a “Pan-American” school from the beginning.

According to President Frenk, who “voraciously” reads through historical documents Parks sends him, Merrick intended for UM to be a link to South America and the Caribbean. President Frenk’s Mexican heritage and his vision for UM as a gateway to Latin America is a continuation of Merrick’s idea back in the early 20th century.

“There’s a famous saying on the front of the National Archives, ‘What is past is prologue,’ and that is really true,” Parks said. “You can’t really have a bright future unless you understand where you’ve come from, and I think that’s what he’s really helping us do now at the university.”

Upon his arrival at UM, President Frenk read the original charter for the university from 1925. Since then, the Office of the President has worked closely with UM Libraries and university archivists to provide President Frenk with abundant context for his installation as president, archivist Koichi Tasa said.

“We have been helping his office with historical documents, with pictures, with programs like this. He is very interested in UM history,” Tasa said.

Tasa has worked as a librarian and archivist for UM for about 10 years but continues to find intriguing items and facts about the university and the surrounding community.

“Every day we find something very exciting, interesting,” he said.