SALT LAKE CITY—Diocese of Salt Lake City Archivist Gary Topping gets a kick out of records. Rather than dusty, old papers, he sees a treasure trove of information that brings the past to life. It’s a trait that has served him well throughout his 40-year career as an historian and archivist.
It’s also what brought him to Utah from Coos Bay, Ore. and what is garnering him recognition from the Utah State Historical Society. Topping has been selected to become a Fellow of that organization and will be honored at a private reception Sept. 27.
Back in 1969 when he enrolled in Northwest Nazarene College, Topping was uncertain what he wanted to study. He thought he liked the idea of literature until he read some literary reviews and concluded the field might be too highbrow for him.
“All that ethereal stuff didn’t appeal to me,” he said. “History struck me as being much more grounded.”
The literary world’s loss was the State of Utah’s gain. Topping went on to earn a Bachelor of Arts and a Master of Arts in history and came to Utah in the late 1970s to pursue a doctoral degree in the field. Not long out of his graduate program, Topping was hired by the Utah State Historical Society as a curator of manuscripts.
“I didn’t plan to stay in Utah but in the 1970s jobs for historians were very scarce,” he said. “I was very happy to get a job.”
Although he did not set out to be an archivist it has been a job Topping loves.
“For any historian to get the chance to work with original materials is a great joy,” he said.
As curator at the State Historical Society, Topping worked with letters, diaries, photos and what he calls “original materials of history,” including those of noted Utah historians Juanita Brooks and Dale Morgan, along with early Utah pioneers.
In 1991 Topping took a break from the world of records to teach history at Salt Lake Community College for close to 20 years.
Still, preservation of the past called to him in unexpected ways. He regularly attended Mass at the Cathedral of the Madeline with Bernice Mooney, the creator of the diocesan archives, and they would often shoot the breeze after services. When Mooney’s health began to fail, she called Topping to see if he knew someone who could take her place.
“I knew what she was up to: How many Catholic archivists do you think there are in Utah?” he said. “Just me.”
The diocese wanted Topping for the position as well and offered him hours that would work around his teaching schedule. In 2010 he retired from teaching but decided to keep his position with the diocese.
“This is one of the really fortunate things to happen to me,” he said of the job. “It’s a Godsend – it gets me out of my own little claustrophobic world.”
While the diocesan archive has an eclectic collection of materials, Topping has dreams of convincing the departments in the diocese to allow him to be archivist for each of their programs. He hopes to develop a records disposition schedule that would teach them what to keep and how long to keep it for. The value for the future would be enormous, he said.
Still, Topping understands his is a unique perspective.
“Historians make the best archivists,” he said. “We know what’s going to be useful and what isn’t. … I can go into the archives and pull off the shelf the account book of Utah’s first bishop, Bishop Lawrence Scanlan,” he said. “It was the first thing he wrote after he got here. That is a charge for me.”
Among the items in the archives is something that might seem questionable in its usefulness but that nevertheless tells a story. For some reason, the scorecard from a golf game Utah’s second bishop, Bishop Joseph S. Glass, played with the architect of the cathedral’s interior, John Theodore Comes, is part of the collection.
Even in his spare time Topping is always working. He is the author of nine books and numerous articles. He is a member of the Journal of Mormon History Board of Editors and, not surprisingly, an honorary life member of the Utah State Historical Society.
Topping said while he is honored by this latest award, he feels it is a tribute to the greater work that is done at the diocese by the diocesan staff.
“It gives me a renewed pride in being an employee of the diocese and of being part of the important work that is being done here,” he said.
Topping is married to the poet Marianna Hopkins Topping. He has an adult son, Danny, who lives in Lincoln, Neb.