Illinois College has taken on the task of preserving the life and legacy of one of West Central Illinois’ most storied and beloved figures.
The Khalaf Al Habtoor Archives at Illinois College is now the custodian of a collection of the late Ken Bradbury’s life’s work. The vast collection was donated by the Bradbury Family as a way to preserve Ken’s work while also ensuring it is readily available to the public.
Born in Perry in Pike County, Ken directed his first play after graduating from Illinois College in 1973 and taking on a job as an English teacher at Triopia High School, where he would go on to teach and direct plays for 35 years.
Ken’s younger brother Keith says even the Bradbury Family wasn’t aware of just how much material the former teacher, author, and playwright created during his lifetime: “We found as we began to deal with Ken’s possessions that we had an enormous amount of scripts, both play scripts and speech contest scripts, newspaper articles, and so many [other] things to deal with. We thought, ‘What in the world are we going to do with these?’ We certainly didn’t want to destroy them, because some of the newspaper articles actually pre-date computers, so we knew that the printed word was all that we had.”
Keith says that Bradbury Foundation Board member Maryjane Million suggested that the family contact Illinois College to see if they would be willing to take on the vast collection: “They have, to me I would say, a new archive division where they have many of Paul Findley’s things and other notables from our area where they will take those items and digitalize them, and keep the original item in a climate-controlled, fire proof area. It was a perfect arrangement for us. They said they would be delighted to have them, so we jumped right on that and made us both happy.”
The collection includes awards, correspondence, documents, ephemera, newspapers, photographs, publications and textiles, as well as production advertisements, playbills, posters, programs, scripts, stage directions and sheet music from over the course of Bradbury’s life and the more than 300 plays he penned. Over the summer, the collection was moved and is now being stored in the Khalaf Al Habtoor Archives. Work has begun to organize and preserve the collection, which will be housed in the archives’ state-of-the-art, secure storage facility. Archivist and curator of the Paul Findley Museum and assistant professor of history at Illinois College, Samantha Sauer says the collection has already generated significant interest and will serve as a rich resource for teaching and research at Illinois College, as well as for off-campus researchers. 8 archive student assistants have been working behind the scenes, gaining hands-on experience learning to care for the collection.
Since his death in 2018, Ken Bradbury’s family has continued to discover his work. Bradbury regularly wrote on average two newspaper columns a week for his 35 years of teaching, and even in his retirement. Keith says as an example of some of the depth of the work that his family has discovered is that Ken regularly answered communities outside of the state’s requests to pen plays for events or sesquicentennial celebrations. Many of Ken’s closest relatives and friends never knew of the numerous plays until recently. Keith says that every time he received a request, he always answered.
Keith says there are many groups interested in reprising many of Ken’s shows, including Triopia High School were he taught for 35 years.
Keith says he has not acted in a play himself for at least 15 years until just recently when he took part in a reprisal of Ken’s play The Spirit of Lincoln, which was taped at the Hoogland Center for the Arts in Springfield: “It was more about the spirit of Lincoln than Lincoln himself, more about the people around him and how he affected them. We finished filming that [recently] and it will be streamed on the 14th and 15th of November. You can get on the Springfield Theatre Center website and get information on how to stream it. It was kind of fun to do one of his shows now, even though we did it without an audience. It’s nice knowing that it’s on film now, so that is preserved again and something preserved for history. It was fun doing this because I got to do the part that Ken did originally. My role was easy. All I had to do was do it better than him. I think I succeeded in that.”
Keith says in the end, the family is very pleased to have Ken’s work entrusted to Illinois College: “It’s nice to have this secure. It’s nice to have all the documents digitalized and accessible. Probably for the family, it’s more important that we’ve always got it and Ken will always be here. As long as this stuff is around, he’ll be here. His ideas and his humor will always be near us, so we will have access to that.”
To find out information on the streaming presentation of The Spirit of Lincoln, visit springfieldtheatrecentre.com.