photo of the new Edwards Classroom in Whitman College's Penrose library. Several students are seated at desks facing the camera. A professor stands at the head of the classroom with her back to the camera.

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After a year of pandemic-induced closure, Penrose Library is welcoming the Whitman College community with new sights and spaces.

The ground floor entrance to the Whitman College and Northwest Archives, once tucked behind rows of books, now greets visitors with a gleaming entry of pale wood and glass. Just beyond this area, adjacent to the Whitman Archives Reading Room, is a new classroom—built and named in honor of longtime history professor G. Thomas “Tom” Edwards and his wife Nannette. The space promises to serve new generations of students in their explorations of the archives and its collections.

The Edwards Classroom is thanks to a donation to the college from the Edwards’ children, Stephanie Edwards Plowman ’85 and Randall Edwards, as well as memorial gifts from Whitman alumni Jeffrey A. Christianson ’79 and Evans W. Van Buren ’70.

A History of Serving Others

black and white photo of Tom and Nannette Edwards standing outside a stone buildingIn 1964, the classroom’s namesakes became part of the Whitman community after Tom Edwards accepted a position in Whitman’s History Department. The Edwards lost little time in becoming involved members of the community. “Mom and Dad dedicated their lives to those they were around, and the Whitman community was no exception,” say Stephanie and Randall.

Tom Edwards taught at Whitman for 34 years. He became the William Kirkman Professor of History, served on numerous committees, and published four books and dozens of articles. He was a respected lecturer whose Civil War seminar was especially popular among students regardless of their major, as were his public lectures. He also served as an advisor to seven of Whitman’s presidents. Edwards won numerous awards for his teaching and writing, including the Burlington Northern Teaching Achievement Award and the Robert Gray Medal from the Washington State Historical Society.

In his honor each year, the G. Thomas Edwards Award for Excellence in Teaching and Scholarship is awarded to a Whitman College professor.

An excellent educator herself, Nannette Edwards spent 20 years as a fifth-grade teacher at Green Park Elementary School. She also supported her husband in his research and teaching. Stephanie and Randall describe their mother as instrumental to their father’s work: “Before there were photocopy machines, she painstakingly wrote out the information by hand” and often ran the slides for Tom’s public presentations. For his Civil War seminars, held at the Edwards’ home, Nannette served as the “consummate host” and baked treats from scratch for the students. The younger Edwards recall how their parents “kept close ties to hundreds of Whitman alumni, many of whom would visit our parents over the years and would consider them close friends.”

Van Buren, one of the alumni who helped make the new classroom possible, exemplifies how the Edwards built lifelong friendships with students. Although Van Buren was a math major, he took and enjoyed Tom’s college courses, even following up with him after graduation for Civil War book recommendations. Edwards ran a Civil War Roundtable for 12 years after his retirement from Whitman and led Civil War alumni trips in the South, all of which Van Buren attended. He became personal friends with the Edwards family as they bonded over shared devotions to history and baseball. 

A Place to Dive in and Discover

Stephanie and Randall describe the Edwards Classroom as “a perfect tribute to our parents, honoring their dedication to Whitman, to scholarship and to education.” They remember the hours their parents spent in archives across the country, as well as the importance of the Whitman archives for their father’s research and teaching. Now, the siblings are happy thinking about the “generations of students, who will get their hands dirty handling primary sources” in the Edwards Classroom.

The addition of the Edwards Classroom provides the Whitman College and Northwest Archives with instructional space it was sorely lacking. Previously, all classes met in the archives reading room. This room is intended for public visitors and Whitman faculty, staff and students to access the archives and various collections. However, it is a relatively small space and so any class visits prevented other researchers.

The new classroom, on the other hand, is 900 square feet with room for 24 students and frees the reading room for individual research. Although the pandemic-induced closure of the library and archives was difficult and disappointing, it did mean that the Edwards Classroom construction took place without disrupting library visitors. Construction began in October 2020 and was completed in March 2021.

As the archives opens its doors again, visitors will be able to look into the Edwards Classroom and witness students diving into scholarly treasures, including book art collections, antique Bibles and manuscript collections documenting Walla Walla history. Leading these explorations will be professors and instructors encouraging students to think deeper and differently.

A Lasting Legacy of Learning

For Van Buren, Christianson and innumerable others, Tom Edwards was a favorite teacher—the one who inspired an excitement for learning. Van Buren says he reflected on the importance of quality educators in the advice he gave to his own children: “Find out who other students think are good teachers. Take a class from those teachers even if it is not a course you would normally sign up for. You will benefit from the excitement of learning.”

The Edwards Classroom provides a beautiful and functional space for Whitman faculty, staff and students, honoring the commitment of Tom and Nanette Edwards to education, to research, and to the thousands of students who were fortunate enough to spend time in their classrooms and home.