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Family's Rare Gifts to SLU Carry Forward Bibliophile's Legacy

A desire to see a loved one’s collection of rare, historical texts teach new generations, and to give something back to Saint Louis University, led SLU alumnus Jeff Edwards, Ph.D., to comb through closets, check his home’s walls and to look through boxes in an Ohio garage. The items he found have become rare gifts that will now reside at the University.

Jeff Edwards, Ph.D., and Shelby Edwards

Jeff Edwards, Ph.D., (Grad Parks '17) and his wife,  Shelby, donated rare items from the collection of Jeff's grandfather, Norman H. Strouse, to SLU. Photo by Amelia Flood

Edwards (Grad Parks ’17) and his wife, Shelby, recently donated a bound copy of the four Gospels from a 1611 King James Bible, along with three illuminated medieval manuscript leaves and a watercolor design for a stained glass window likely dating from the 19th century.

Receiving a single leaf from a first edition of the King James Bible is considered a fine addition to an institution’s collections, special collections staff members noted. The Edwards’ gift includes all four Gospels, making it much more significant. The King James Bible was one of the first officially-sanctioned translations of the Bible into English and it is among the most widely republished books in the world.

First editions of the King James Bible are especially rare. The King James translation of the Bible has had a profound and lasting impact on English literature and language.

“Indeed, it is one of the cornerstones of world culture,” SLU professor Gregory Pass, Ph.D., assistant dean  for special collections, said.

“Having these Gospels from the King James Bible allows us to illustrate with vivid immediacy a landmark in the history of the Bible and how it was read and circulated,” Jennifer Lowe, associate professor and rare books librarian, said.

The gift is already being used to teach SLU students. It also continues the legacy of Edwards’s grandfather, Norman H. Strouse, an ad maven from the era made famous by AMC’s Mad Men.

“He became a self-made man largely through the media and the media of his time,” Edwards said. He recalled that as a child and young man, his grandfather shared a list of 100 books with him that Strouse believed were essential reading. That list included Gray’s Anatomy and other weighty classics.

After rising from a job as a mail room clerk, Strouse became the CEO of J. Walter Thompson, one of the world’s largest advertising firms. He was also an avid reader and became a collector of rare books, print culture artifacts like centuries-old wooden type, manuscripts, and fine art by artist-friends including Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Strouse also became known for his philanthropy as he donated much of the impressive rare book and manuscript collection that he built over his lifetime to educational institutions.

Details of the Edwards Family gift
The couple's gift included medieval manuscript leaves, a watercolor design for a stained glass window and a bound copy of the four Gospels from a 1611 King James Bible. Photo by Amelia Flood

Edwards’ grandfather favored outings to rare bookshops, taking his grandson along. Edwards still owns the volume of Gulliver’s Travels that came home with him after the first of those trips.

“This was his passion,” Edwards said. “His collection was about the transmission of ideas. He very strongly believed in education because getting one for him was very difficult.” Edwards’ grandfather could not pursue a college education because he needed to support his mother and siblings, his grandson recalled.

Before his death, Strouse gifted large parts of his collection to libraries and universities around the country and in 1969 founded the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum in St. Helena, California, with a gift of his collection of the author’s works and related memorabilia.

Parts of Strouse’s collection passed to Edwards’ mother and then to his father after her death. Edwards and his wife, Shelby, eventually displayed some of the rare books and collections in their home. Others ended up in closets and some were stored in boxes in the family garage in Ohio.

Edwards has had a long relationship with SLU and its aviation department in Parks College of Engineering, Aviation and Technology. The owner of AvSafe, an investigative aviation safety company in Chesterfield, Missouri, he had taught adjunct courses in aviation and encouraged his daughter, Jennifer Gritton, to tackle a doctoral degree at SLU. She, in turn, challenged her dad to do the same.

“She said if she did it, I had to do it,” her father recalled. Edwards defended his dissertation in December 2017, earning his doctorate in aviation.

A video by SLU’s Digital Media team about the Rare Books Room shared through Newslink inspired him to think about his grandfather’s collection. Learning how the SLU Libraries preserve and make use of rare printed and manuscript materials for teaching and research, he and his wife contacted Lowe about donating the items.

“I thought they should be somewhere where they could be appreciated and protected,” Edwards explained. “It’s important that things like this be used in education and to further research instead of sitting in someone’s closet, or even being discarded.”

The gift includes the entire section of the four Gospels separately bound from a  first edition, first issue of the King James Bible. The Gospels’ text was printed in gothic, “black letter” type, a font typically used for sacred scripture in the 17th century. The Edwards’ Gospels were originally part of a book intended to serve as a lectern Bible, which would have been read in public.

This was his passion. His collection was about the transmission of ideas. He very strongly believed in education because getting one for him was very difficult.” 

Jeff Edwards, Ph.D. 

The manuscripts include a leaf from a Book of Hours depicting John the Baptist in the Wilderness produced around 1450 in Bruges, a city in what is now Belgium; a leaf from an Italian Antiphonary, or type of liturgical book, that shows St. John the Evangelist; and a leaf from a French ferial psalter – a collection of psalms and other materials for the Divine Office – that depicts Christ bearing the Cross on his road to the Crucifixion. The watercolor design depicts a stained glass window.

The Edwards’ gifts bring history to life for students. Lowe has already used the Gospels to teach about the history of the Bible to theology classes.

“These manuscript leaves are fine examples of late medieval illumination that will add to our ability to teach the history of manuscript book culture, making these lessons more tangible and compelling to students,” Pass said.

As donors, Jeff and Shelby Edwards have been made members of the Saint Louis University Library Associates, and they will be honored for their gift later this year at the annual Library Associates appreciation event.

Edwards urged other alumni and friends of the University to seek out potentially rare books and manuscripts they may have that might further SLU’s mission of educating students.

“I would encourage people to look in their closets, their basements, their garages, and to see if they have something collecting dust and to consider donating it to an institution like this that can benefit from it,” he said.

Jenny Lowe, Jeff Edwards, Ph.D., Shelby Edwards, Gregory Pass, Ph.D.

(From left) Jenny Lowe, associate professor and rare books librarian, Jeff Edwards, Ph.D., Shelby Edwards and Gregory Pass, Ph.D., assistant dean for special collections, examine the rare items donated by the Edwards family. Photo by Amelia Flood

Founded in 1818, Saint Louis University is one of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious Catholic institutions. Rooted in Jesuit values and its pioneering history as the first university west of the Mississippi River, SLU offers nearly 13,000 students a rigorous, transformative education of the whole person. At the core of the University’s diverse community of scholars is SLU’s service-focused mission, which challenges and prepares students to make the world a better, more just place.