Academic journal article Public Administration Review

The Amazing Miss Burchfield

Academic journal article Public Administration Review

The Amazing Miss Burchfield

Article excerpt

Even in those last days, after the stroke had left her too frail to live the independent life she loved, she could be found at the convalescent center surrounded by stacks of newspapers. A voracious reader who reveled in the world of ideas, she was in her element during the years she edited Public Administration Review. Long after she had left PAR, she looked back at her work and explained that her position had put her in a dialogue with the best thinkers of the age as their ideas came fresh off the typewriter (D. Webster 1999). She was a synthesis person who found connections among diverse ideas and places. But I am getting ahead of myself. First, who was she?

Who was this person that most of us know of, but few know well? Through library archives, Internet searches, e-mails, letters, and interviews with former colleagues and family, I have uncovered facts about her work that I wish I had known long ago. If the professionalization of public administration could be equated with a hurricane, she was at the eye.

I have read about Lewis Meriam, Leonard D. White, Louis Brownlow, Charles Merriam, Luther Gulick, David Lilienthal, Herbert Emmerich, Marshall E. Dimock, John M. Gaus, Donald C. Stone, William E. Mosher, and the other luminaries who carved the path that we follow. These figures worked at the Public Administration Service; created the Public Administration Clearing House; crafted the Report of the President's Committee on Administrative Management; breathed life into the Tennessee Valley Authority; created the American Society for Public Administration; and generally created the professional infrastructure that we enjoy today. These names I see in textbooks on the intellectual history of the field. The name that is missing is Laverne Burchfield.

She is the person who edited the Tennessee Valley Authority's earliest reports; she is the person who edited the Brownlow Committee report; she is the person who staffed ASPA until a full-time executive director came on board, funded by the Ford Foundation grant she had written; she is the one who ... you get the picture. Working as a staffer rather than a director, her contributions, though enormous, have remained invisible to historians who never looked behind the door. This chronology, however brief, may help to set the record straight.

Not one to boast of her own accomplishments, if Laverne Burchfield were alive today, I suspect she would read this article, think about it, smile lightly, then never mention it unless directly asked--at which time she would recall every minute detail. She was a quietly proud person, aware that she was a pioneer for women in public service and committed to succeeding as a woman working in a man's world. Guided by her own star, her rewards came less through job titles and more through pride in work well done and the appreciation of friends whom she valued.

I will start at the beginning and relate the events of her life in as much detail as these pages allow. With a historical piece such as this, the reader is left, just as is the biographer, to fill in gaps with hunches. My imagination has curled around the amazing Miss Burchfield and will not let go. I hope that the paragraphs that follow will tease your imagination as well. Laverne insisted on having a scotch before dinner (never with; only before). I invite you to pour one for yourself, then read on.

From the Beginning

Adah Laverne Burchfield was born January 18, 1900, on a farm near Holland, Ohio, on the outskirts of Toledo. She was a pioneer in public administration, as her family was in settling the land. The farm, which remains in the family today, was deeded to Laverne's great-grandfather, John, who had moved west from Pennsylvania and homesteaded there, earning the property in 1834 through a government land grant.

The Burchfield family valued education, especially for women. Her father, Clarence Joshua, was the youngest of four siblings in his family. …

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