History Alum Takes on Role with City Archives

Matthew Ellis is currently serving as the City Archives Assistant for the City of Grand Rapids

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Alum with a big book

In 2014, Grand Rapids welcomed a new City Archivist and early in 2015, Matthew Ellis, recent Aquinas College graduate and history major, became the City Archives Assistant.


Matthew grew up one block from campus and has happy memories of climbing trees and catching frogs here.  “All the pathways seemed more confusing then,” he remembered. It was the history of the property and the old buildings that truly captured his imagination and he used to wonder about the kind of people who would have lived here in the past.


Leaving the public schools for St. Andrews in the eighth grade, Matthew went on to graduate from Catholic Central High School. Because his family was not Catholic, Matthew initially thought of himself as an outsider but found it was easy it was for him to make friends at these schools.


A love of history and mythology was instilled in Matthew at a young age when The Iliad and the Odyssey were read to him at bedtime. Matthew responded by writing fantasy stories, but thoroughly researching them for historical accuracy.


Matthew’s older sister, Sarah, graduated from Aquinas with a degree in business administration and community leadership. It was at Aquinas, where Matthew chose to pursue his undergraduate degree. Once here, he struggled to decide on a major. He studied computer science, psychology, and chemistry and biology. Along the way he took a history class each semester, “just because it was my favorite.” His first history class was taught by Dr. Bethany Kilcrease and he immediately took another from her.


Matthew found Aquinas to have a “great atmosphere for learning”. His professors were understanding and easy to talk to and he felt comfortable sharing ideas. He enjoyed his classmates and found it easy getting to know people even though he lived off campus.


Early in his junior year, Matthew sought out Aquinas Career and Counseling Services to help him with decisions about career and future, and they called his attention to his strength in history. Matthew loved history but it hadn’t registered as a career option for him. By the next semester, he became a full-time history major.


Because of a step-father who worked at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital, Matthew got involved in a history project at that hospital during his senior year. Using historical documents at the hospital and also searching through records at the Grand Rapids Public Library, Matthew created a presentation on the history of the hospital that he presented to the hospital president and board, which they plan to show on a loop in their lobby. 


In order to use hospital records, he had to first organize them. It was timely for him to be taking a public history course, taught by Aquinas College Archivist, Jennifer Morrison, as the class was introduced to archival science. One memorable exercise involved giving each student a packet of photocopies of letters, photographs, newspaper clippings and other personal papers of college alumnus, Jerome Byrne. The original documents form a manuscript collection at the Aquinas College Archives. Students were asked to organize the material into a logical arrangement and write a finding aid that conformed to professional archival standards.  


Near the time that Matthew graduated, Tony Wright, the new Grand Rapids City Archivist, contacted Jennifer Morrison in search of interns. Matthew was able to take a finding aid, that he created himself, to the interview.  He got the position and began his on the job training with the archivist in charge of all official Grand Rapids city records. Having learned a great deal, enjoyed his work and proved his competency, Matthew was the first choice just months later, when the full-time position of Assistant to the City Archivist became open. 


Matthew loves the city archives and the archival work he gets to do there. The collection is rich and varied.  Already he has worked with city assessor’s cards that are highly valued for their house history information, Gerald Ford letters, and 1920s era felony record books. Recently he was given authority over a collection of early school records.


Matthew intends to continue his education with a Masters degree in information science or political science, but in the meantime, he is enjoying the odyssey that took him from student to professional archivist in less than a year.