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Researchers uncover local history through Max Heller’s papers in Special Collections

Jess Foster ’20 examines historical documents about Max Heller in Furman's Special Collections and Archives. (Photo by Christina Alsip)

Two Greenville natives are digging into their hometown’s history this summer, and Max Heller’s papers, held in Furman’s Special Collections and Archives, will be central to their work.

Andrew Baker, a Ph.D. candidate at Auburn University, and Jess Foster ’20, a history major at Furman, are working on separate projects. But the extensive Heller collection – which covers his escape from Nazi-held Austria, his years as mayor of Greenville and more – should provide a wealth of information for both.

Foster’s academic focus has been European history, with a particular emphasis on the Holocaust. Heller’s story ties that world to Southern history and politics, a new field of study for her. She first noticed his papers while working as a student assistant in Special Collections.

“I had a lot of opportunities to rummage around in the archives since I was working there,” she said. “I was initially drawn to [the Heller collection] because there was so much material.”

Max Heller/Furman Special Collections

The collection includes about 35 cubic feet of records – papers, photos, scrapbooks and larger materials – making it one of Furman’s largest holdings from a single person’s life and career.

When she learned about the Special Collections Summer Research and Creative Fellowship, Foster jumped at the chance to switch from cataloguing to researching.

“It’s a little daunting, being in charge of this on my own,” she said. “But it’s also sort of freeing. I really want to do a good job to show that I’m capable of this kind of research.”

Foster’s work will focus on Heller’s unsuccessful run for Congress in 1978, which is something of a political mystery. Heller was leading in the polls as the race wound down; some have suggested a late survey of voters had anti-Semitic tones and swayed the results.

“I don’t believe that his defeat has ever been properly explained,” Foster said. “And that’s bugging me, giving me that urge to investigate.”

Baker will look at that episode as well, but his dissertation will cover a broader period.

He studied history and political science at Clemson University, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees, then taught at Anderson University, Greenville Technical College and Tri-County Technical College before heading to Auburn.

Baker has always been interested in Southern history, but he didn’t go into the doctoral program planning to focus on either Greenville or Heller. His initial plan was to study the decline of the textile industry in the South. But his research led him to the Heller collection in fall 2018.

“I got into his papers, and I thought, ‘This is actually the better dissertation. This is way more interesting,’” he said.

Baker’s work will examine the changes in Greenville from the 1970s to the present, including the shift from majority Democratic to majority Republican and the economic rebirth after the decline of the textile industry.

“Heller serves as the thread that holds the dissertation together,” he said.

He sees Heller not only as an economic leader but also as someone who gave Greenville a more international feel and appeal, leading ultimately to investments by major companies such as BMW and Michelin.

Baker hopes to complete his manuscript by spring 2020. He’ll be teaching at Anderson University again in the fall.

Foster’s fellowship lasts through the summer. She’s planning a paper to summarize her findings.

“It’s exciting because I don’t know what I’m going to find, what I’m going to uncover,” she said. “I want to get to the bottom of this.”

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