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Friday, Oct. 9, 2015

NU's Dr. John Leland Champe

Monday, April 22, 2013

Crew Members Jim Gunnerson and Walt Sehnert
(Sehnert personal photo)
To those of us who grew up in Northeast Nebraska in the 1930s ancient history was pretty much knowing about someone's grandparents. But occasionally we got a chance to look further into the past, when we got to view a collection of Indian Arrow Heads, or a cracked piece of Indian pottery, which the owner invariably referred to as something "really old." We had to take his word for the age of the artifact.

When I got to the University of Nebraska, after World War II, I took a beginning course in anthropology. Here, I got a chance to learn about some things that were really, really old, and something about the people who had owned these things originally. But the most fascinating part of that first anthropology course was the fellow who taught the course -- Dr. John Champe.

The anthropology department was still small in the late 40s and it was our good fortune that the beginning course was taught by Dr. Champe, who was also the head of the department.

NU Anthropologist Dr. John L. Champe, studio photo, and at work at Early Man Site
Dr. Champe loved his subject, but he had done other things -- He was born in Elwood, Nebraska in 1895. After high school he had entered the University of Nebraska, in 1913, but his University career was cut short by World War I, where John served as an Infantry Officer in France. After World War I, John had returned to Lincoln to complete his BA Degree in mathematics, in 1921. By 1938, he had risen to an executive position in an insurance company. (But, to my mind, the best thing he ever did, was, in 1924, to persuade Flavia Waters, a beautiful Lincoln girl -- a dancer, who had spent several seasons traveling the Keith Theater Circuit, primarily on the East Coast and Broadway -- to exchange a career in show business for marriage and a quiet life with him in Lincoln. For some years John occasionally played the piano for Flavia's dance classes.) These diverse life experiences, combined with a natural talent for conveying information in the form of a good story, made him a favorite teacher, and his classes popular.

Though John was successful in the business world, in 1938, at age 43, he abruptly left the world of commerce to pursue a PhD in anthropology at Columbia University, under the eminent Professor, Wm. Duncan Strong. After Columbia, came a couple of years overseeing WPA crews, who were excavating Pawnee Indian sites in Northeast Nebraska, until, in 1940, the University called and offered him a position on the NU faculty -- as a math instructor.

John told of teaching math to group of Navy officer candidates. The weather had turned hot in early spring (with no air conditioning in his classroom). He was explaining a math concept to the class, and writing lengthy equations on the blackboard. When he turned back to the class they were asleep, to the last man. Silently, without a word, he left the classroom -- to write up a little pop quiz, which he gave to the class at their next meeting.

In 1941 Champe became one of the Founders of the Laboratory of Anthropology at NU, within the Department of Sociology. This enabled Champe, and others, to engage in field projects in archeology and ethnology. Champe particularly distinguished himself, and the University with his interpretive archaeology on Ancient Man sites in Nebraska, such as Stearns Creek Woodland Culture, near Murray, Nebraska, Ash Hollow Cave, at Lewellen, for which he is credited with the definitive description of four distinct cultures which had occupied that site, and White Cat Village (our site), near Alma, which proved the interaction of the early Pawnee, in rectangular houses, with the nomadic tribes of the Southwest United States.

I was captivated enough by Dr. Champe and his grasp of anthropology that I joined the University crew for a summer expedition to an early-man archaeology site in the Republican River Valley, near Alma, in 1948. It turned out to be one of the best summers I ever spent.

Champe was a tough task master, and we worked hard, digging, sorting, learning to keep precise scientific records -- and keeping the camp site clean, but it was all most interesting, and fun as well. John was a good ambassador for our project. He had a knack for getting the property owners and the people in the area to take pride in what we were doing, and he was a patient guide in explaining what it all meant. Our camp at White Cat Village drew a veritable Who's Who of Plains Anthropologists that summer -- fellows like Waldo Wedel, A.T. Hill, and George Metcalf, who with John Champe, and John's mentor at Columbia, William Duncan Strong, had virtually written the book on Plains (Nebraska) Archaeology. John Champe made them all feel welcome, and in the evening they regaled our camp with stories of other digs, other Anthropologists -- celebrities, and other assorted characters. They were all good storytellers.

Almost every day we entertained individuals or groups that followed our progress. One day our visitors included three or four paleontologists from the U. who were also digging for fossils from the Republican River Valley, before the area was flooded. Their camp was located about 10 miles downstream from White Cat Village.

The morning following their visit, one of our crew came running up to John Champe, with the news that she had uncovered a Clovis (New Mexico) projectile point -- truly an amazing find, far different than the artifacts that we had uncovered up to that time.

John looked at the find for a minute or so, then dug it out of the ground with his pocket knife (a real no no -- before the relic could be properly recorded in our log) -- and as he walked away with his find his face was red. He was mad -- really mad.

No one dared to say anything to John about the discovery the rest of the day, though our camp was abuzz with speculation about the historic find. Toward the end of the day, John walked to his car. I was nearby and he motioned that I should come along with him. We drove the 10 miles to the paleo boys' camp and arrived while they were eating their evening meal.

Without much ceremony John began to talk to the group. He was very calm. He talked about the fact that each of the disciplines at the U. was seeking understanding about the area. We were all on the same team, and each of our discoveries benefitted everyone. Then he held up the "Clovis" projectile point. He pointed out that such a point was unlike the other artifacts that we had uncovered. But then he began to examine the Clovis point in detail. He pointed out four flaws in the arrowhead, saying that it was really not a very good Clovis point -- no Early Man Flint-Knapper worth his salt would have allowed that point to have gone undestroyed.

"And," he concluded, "If I every catch any of you "salting" one of my sites again, I will, personally, old man that I am, knock the crap out of you!" Without another word he turned away. We got back into his car and drove back to our camp -- it was a silent ride home. We had no more trouble at the dig for the rest of the time we were there.

Later in the fall, I ran into one of the paleo boys who had been at that camp. He told me that they were just having a little fun. They had been practicing their flint-knapping all summer, and felt that they had mastered the art, and they were sure that we would not be able to tell their projectile from a real Clovis point. "I guess we were wrong," he added with a sigh.

John Champe became the first Chairman of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Nebraska in 1952, a post he held until his retirement in 1961. But, in retirement, John did what he considered his most important work -- certainly, the most satisfying work of his career.

'Til almost the time of his death, in 1978, John appeared at numerous legal trials, as an expert witness, bolstering Indian claims against the U.S. Government, in land claims disputes.

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Walt Sehnert
Days Gone By