Becoming an Historian: A Weird and Wacky Path

The other day in class, a student asked me why I became an historian. It was hard to answer. In fact, all I could come up with was, “I don’t think it was any one thing, but a series of events pushing me to becoming an historian.” And I think that it is different for every historian. Looking back at my life, five things influenced me into loving history: the context of my life, television, some wonderful professors, my family, and some great books and authors.

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Shell Shocked Soldier by Don McCullin

The Context of My Life
Being born in 1963, some of first memories are of the war in Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Beatles. Every day, my family would gather round the television at 5:30 p.m. to watch Walter Conkrite do the CBS Evening News. The images I saw still impact me today. I am a very visual teacher in that students examine a lot of images like political cartoons and images. For me, the images of Vietnam have been seared into my brain. They do not haunt me, but I will always remember the images I saw like “Napalm Girl,” “Shell Shocked-Soldier,” and Eddie Adams’ “The Assassination.” I introduce them to my students along with other images from that era including the Civil Rights movement in Birmingham, Bull Connor, Malcolm X, and the Black Panthers. The era is ripe with stark images of the events.

Add in my own personal fascination with the Beatles, and everything about them. When older, I began researching them and finding out information about them. They were my favorite band up until I was a junior in high school. That fascination would continue when I began listening to Led Zeppelin, The Police, Rush, and Pearl Jam – my other favorite bands. I always researched every artist. I still do today. I dig into their past and find out who influenced them, why they picked up an instrument, and how they got in the record business. It is always interesting to me.

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The favorite band of my youth

Television
You wouldn’t think that TV as a medium would influence an historian in the pre-cable days, but the show I would always watch when I came home from school was “Hogan’s Heroes.” I know it sounds corny, but the truth of the matter is that I wanted to learn more about what was happening on each episode of “Hogan’s Heroes.” I would always use an encyclopedia to find out about something mentioned on Hogan’s Heroes whether it was the Gestapo or the city of Hamburg or some member of the Nazi hierarchy. It really piqued my interest in World War II. I remember there was a kid in my class named Larry Weaver whose dad served in World War II. His dad had brought back/mailed stuff from his service and I always thought those artifacts, including a Luger and a Nazi flag, were the coolest things!

Hogan's Heroes got me interested in World War II

Hogan’s Heroes got me interested in World War II

College Professors
When I went to college in 1982 to Western Illinois University, I had the great honor of learning under Larry Balsamo and the late Darrel Dykstra. Both were quite different in their teaching styles and I think I liked that about them. Larry Balsamo was very energetic, always had a story to tell, and he loved the little details he found interesting that no one else did. His Civil War and Reconstruction class is my all-time favorite class. It was hard if you had Larry not to love history because he did so much.

Darrel Dykstra was the opposite of Larry Balsamo. He was quiet, reserved, and meticulous when I learned about Middle East History. His attention to detail and material were some of my favorite of college including a book we had to read called “Guests of the Sheik.”

Fifteen years later, I had the pleasure of taking a class in grad school at NIU with the late Jordan Schwarz. Dr. Schwarz was a huge Cubs fan, but he taught me a lot about writing history. After the class ended, I played golf with him several times and all we talked about was the Cubs…nothing else. I have enough Andy Pafko stories to last me a lifetime.

Another professor who had a huge impact on my career was Bruce Field, now at South Carolina. Bruce engaged me to write the proper lesson plan (he would later speak at my wedding as he was friends with my wife before I met my wife). Later, Carla Shaw of NIU tapped into my creative side to get me to create my own teaching models/style for history. She had a huge influence on how I teach. Later, she would be my initial doctoral adviser before her retirement. She Skyped into my oral defense. I was really touched.

The Family
My older brother Mark had some influence on me when it comes to being an historian. He is five and half years older but he always used to have models he constructed of the space program. There used to be models of a Saturn V rocket, the lunar lander and the capsules on his shelf. I found them so interesting. I tended to build model battleships/aircraft carriers. But when he left for college in 1976, I had the bedroom to myself and one of the first things I did was to research the space program including each astronaut and Apollo mission.

My parents probably had the biggest role in me becoming an historian. In the early 1970s, they bought a set of encyclopedias and a set of World Book Year Books. They would keep adding the Year Books until I graduated. I found them fascinating and even read them throughout college. Having moved several times in my youth and young adulthood, the yearbooks were like my best friends as I read them constantly to find out what happened before I had memories, and to gather more data about what events I did remember from my youth. As I sit here and watch some football, I also remember using the yearbooks to look back at who won sports championships in those years.

The 1968 World Book Year Book - a classic and huge influence!

The 1968 World Book Year Book – a classic and huge influence!

Books on History
Beginning when I was in 5th grade and through my late 40s, I read a lot. It was not until 8th grade that I read my first historically tinged book. It was in 8th grade history class with Kent Crear at Polo Junior High School that I read “All the King’s Men” by Robert Penn Warren and it was stunning! Today, it is still one of my favorite books of all time ( I never did see the Sean Penn movie as I thought there was no way it could match the book). I think the book that got me hooked on history was “Ordeal By Fire (1st Edition)” by James McPherson. I read it when I was junior in college (1984) and I found it totally fascinating. Up to that point in my life, I loved short stories, science fiction, and 19th century literature. From that point on, it was all history for the next few years (along with Science Fiction). Today, I like Doris Kearns Goodwin and her writing style, Michael Beschloss is good, too, along with John Eisenhower, and I can read about the New Deal by Jordan Schwarz anytime.

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A great tale and a great warning about political power

Thinking about it, I could add baseball cards, being a Cubs and Bears fan, but whatever I get interested in, I learn the history about it. I know these things are what made made me an historian, but what keeps me an historian are the students that I teach. I still enjoy learning about history and sharing it with them. I don’t really consider it teaching, just sharing what I enjoy about the past and how I found it and experience it. In the present, my wife and I rarely plan a vacation unless it involves a historical site or two. In fact, that is my plan for this summer. I plan on going down to Nauvoo to see some Mormon history, over to Hannibal for Mark Twain, and then on to Kansas City for some Negro League Museum stuff. It is who I am. It is what I do. It is what I enjoy.

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