Tag Archives: The Tennessean

The Pelican Brief

16 Nov

You may know these lines.

A wonderful bird is the pelican,
His bill will hold more than his belican,
He can take in his beak
Enough food for a week
But I’m damned if I see how the helican!

It is a limerick of some fame. In fact, some consider it one of the best limericks of all time.

Through the years, I have heard several limericks, and some of them have stuck in my mind. There is the one about Nantucket. There is also one I heard in a movie about a young lady from Niger who rode on a tiger.

Bonus points for anyone who can tell me what movie featured that one.

Now, back to the pelican limerick. Most people think it was written by Ogden Nash. Apparently, Nash wrote a bunch of limericks, and, when people do not know who wrote something, they automatically think he did it. Look it up. The name of Ogden Nash is all over The Pelican.

However, here is the thing. Ogden Nash did not write this one. The Pelican was written by Dixon Merritt, who lived in Lebanon, Tennessee.Dixon Merritt

His name is prominent in our town’s history. There is a building at Cedars of Lebanon State Park that bears his name. He also taught at Cumberland University; edited The Lebanon Democrat and The Tennessean newspapers; served as Tennessee State Director of Public Safety; and was an amateur historian.

On top of all that, he was a poet, and most people did not know it.

Annual Activities Report, or There is a Lot to this Higher Education Stuff

1 Jun

Teaching in higher education is a great job. I get to talk about history and, hopefully, fill the minds of students with information that they need to know. It is great to have a student come up after class and ask a question. It is great when they show interest in what we are talking about. There is great satisfaction in being a teacher.History Teacher

However, higher education is about more than teaching. We are expected to serve the university as members of various committees. We are expected to take part in scholarly activities outside of the classroom. We are expected to serve the surrounding community.

At the end of each academic year, we turn in an Annual Activities Report to our dean. It is a way for the administration to know that we are doing our jobs. I just finished my report and realized that it has been a very busy year.

In the Fall of 2013, I taught four classes and one directed study. Three of the classes were surveys over the first part of American history, and one was the history of Latin America. Enrolled in those courses, were 132 students. I also taught four classes in the Spring of 2014. Three were surveys over the second part of American history, and one was the Expansion of the United States, my specialty. Those classes had 118 students. In addition, I was an advisor to 18 students in the Fall and 12 students in the Spring.

In October of 2013, I attended the conference of the Western History Association in Tucson, Arizona. It was an awesome experience. I was also able to raise $15,000 for faculty development.

Did I mention committees? During this academic year, I have served on the Faculty Senate, the GEC (General Education Core) Committee, the Athletic Committee and the Athletic Compliance Committee. Those last two are part of my duties as Faculty Athletic Representative.

As Faculty Athletic Representative, I have also attended meetings of G-MAC, the conference that we are moving into. That is part of our move to Division II of the NCAA. There are several sports on campus, and I have been to games of  baseball, soccer, softball and football.

Oh yeah, I am also the Pi Gamma Mu sponsor, which is the national honor society for the Social Sciences. We also have Phi Alpha Theta, the national honor society for History.

It seems as if there is always something to do on campus, but there are also plenty of things going on around town. I have spoken to the members of the First Presbyterian Church and been interviewed by three of Nashville’s television stations. Also, I have been interviewed by The Nashville Business Journal, The Tennessean, The Lebanon Democrat and The Wilson Post. I also wrote an article for Lebanon Living magazine.

Community service? There is a lot there, as well. I am a member of the board of directors for the James E. Ward Agriculture and Community Center, Fiddler’s Grove Historic Village and the Buchanan Historic Home. I am also on the Lebanon Regional Planning Commission and am a member of the Rotary Club.

When I entered higher education, I knew that I would be teaching history. This other stuff came as a surprise. The other surprise? I like doing all of this stuff.

Letting My Fingers Do the Typing

20 May

I had this well-structured post ready to roll, but I am not feeling it. Honestly, it seems too mechanical, and I am in a more organic mood. It is a night to let my fingers move over the keyboard and type what comes out of them. It is like playing with a Ouija board. Put your hands on the pointer and see where the energy goes.

In college, my roommates and I decided to break out the Ouija board. It was going good for a while. We asked about the hot girls in our classes and if we had a chance with any of them. We asked stupid questions that college guys ask. Then, one of the roommates asked if the Devil was in the room with us. To make a long story short, we became convinced that our apartment was built on top of an Indian burial ground. Everyone ended up sleeping in the same room.

I think there is a Ouija board somewhere in the house.

Wait, it suddenly got quiet. My wife and stepdaughter had one of those competition shows blaring. I think it was The Voice. It could have been American Idol. Anyway, they turned it off, and things suddenly got quiet. It is almost an eerie quiet.

There is a video on my desk called Rock and Roll: The Early Days. I watched it when I was a kid, and it fascinated me. The rise of the first stars is followed by their fall. Next semester, I am teaching a class on the history of American music and knew that this is something I wanted to show. Unfortunately, it only comes in VHS format. Luckily, we still have VCR’s on campus that work.

The quotation bubble at the corner of the screen just turned orange. That means someone left a comment. I just commented on a few blogs, so it is probably a reply. I got into this blogging business to write and have found that I enjoy reading just as much. It is always good to leave a comment on a post that you find fascinating.

By the way, do you want to know how powerful blogging can be? In my last post, I complained about Nashville not having a proper amphitheater. The Tennessean just unveiled a rendering of Nashville’s new downtown amphitheater. Now, that is power.Amphitheater

I found out about that through my wife’s Facebook. A friend who read the post sent over the link and said I would like it. I do not have Facebook. I am convinced that the Devil my roommate asked the Ouija board about is the one who invented Facebook. Obviously, it does good things, but those only cover up the evil within. Do you know how many problems are started on Facebook? A bunch.

There is a local controversy going on as I type this. A well-known guy has been accused of taking $5 million from people through a fraudulent scheme. There are people on Facebook actually defending him and saying everyone makes mistakes. That is true. We all make mistakes. However, stealing $5 million from people you have known all of your life is not a mistake. It is a calculated crime. Wait, all of that is alleged.

Anyway, it is not my point to talk about an alleged crime. The point is that Facebook makes us too connected. I know it is hypocritical to say because I blog and am on Twitter, but I am going to say it. We were not meant to be that connected to everyone else.

I suppose that I am finished with this string of thought. I should get out of my office and pay attention to other people in the house.

Elvis Presley and the Perpetuation of a Myth

3 Dec

The other day, I mentioned that there was a semi-serious post floating in my brain. Today, I am going to get it out of there. A couple of weeks ago The Tennessean, Nashville’s daily newspaper, printed an article about an activist who was going to be speaking in the area.

In the article, readers learned that the activist had a great deal of respect for Dolly Parton because of the singer’s work to improve the lives of children and others. They also learned that she had no respect for Elvis Presley, who she saw as someone who could have done more for his times and his community.Elvis Gate

That’s fine. We all have opinions about what people should and should not be doing. Many feel that the famous have a responsibility of using that fame for the betterment of the world. Dolly does a lot, and Elvis probably didn’t do enough. However, the writer continued with her disdain for Elvis by saying that he was racist. Her proof was that he had once said, “The only thing Negroes can do for me is buy my records and shine my shoes.”

When I read it, something in the back of my mind said that it wasn’t right. I couldn’t explain what was nagging at me, but I just didn’t think that was an accurate quote. That’s when I hit Google and was directed to Snopes. According the them, Elvis never made that statement and referenced Michael Bertrand as the historian who discovered where this urban legend began.

That’s when I knew where that nagging feeling was coming from. Dr. Bertrand teaches at Tennessee State University and spoke to the History Club at our university. He and I had a great conversation about the early years of Rock n’ Roll, but this information came from his presentation to the group. He tracked the origin of this tale to a magazine article in which an anonymous person on the street said that someone told them that Elvis had said that. Through the years, many people have heard it and taken it as fact.

Why am I writing about a long dead singer being misquoted in a newspaper? Because the newspaper and the activist being interviewed should know better. (Note: While working on this post, I discovered that the quote was taken out of the original article, and a follow-up article admitted to the falsehood of the quote.) It is one thing for misinformation to circulate, but people who are trained to research and write shouldn’t go with something they think might be true.

I am also writing about it because historians have to deal with this kind of misinformation all of the time. Surely, you have heard that Catherine the Great died while having sex with a horse. It’s not true, but everyone thinks it is. You have also heard that George Washington could not tell a lie. That probably made his espionage efforts during the Revolutionary War hard to manage. That’s despite being one of the best parts of his strategy.

It is hard to get to the reality of history. It is especially hard when people have misinformation about it already in their minds. All of this is made worse when a reputable newspaper interviews a reputable activist, and they spread the misinformation further.

She is probably correct. Elvis could have done more during his life to make the world better. Instead, he fell into a life of extravagance and drugs. There are many lessons to be learned from the Elvis story but adding wrong information only makes those lessons harder to learn.

Hypothetical History

20 Nov

This weekend, I went to the Hermitage, home of Andrew Jackson, to hear my colleague speak on his latest book about the former president. A large crowd filled a church on the property, and it was a great event. I learned a lot about a president who I have lectured about numerous time. It goes to show that we can all learn something new. Actually, that’s what the study of history is all about.

At the end, time was allowed for questions, and several people raised their hands. I asked a question that wasn’t very good, but it was far from the worst. Just before me, a man asked which side Andrew Jackson would have been on if he had been around for the Civil War. These kinds of questions bother me because they are impossible to answer. I call them “hypothetical history.” Interestingly, my colleague said that is the question he gets the most. Really? Of all the things Andrew Jackson actually did, people are more interested in what he might have done? Hypothetical

These same questions are being asked about John F. Kennedy. As we have been reminded over and over, the 50th anniversary of his assassination is coming up. That means numerous documentaries and articles about his murder and the conspiracies surrounding it. However, it also means numerous documentaries about what might have been. What if he had not been assassinated that day in Dallas?

Many people think that the world would have been a better place. There would not have been a Vietnam. There would not have been more assassinations as the 1960s moved forward. There would never have been a Richard Nixon or a Watergate. All of the bad things that have happened since 1963 would not have happened if only John F. Kennedy had lived.

On Sunday, there was an article in The Tennessean, Nashville’s daily, about this very thing. A Nashville native and friend of Kennedy’s talked about what might have been and what he thought would have been. But, here’s the thing. We don’t know that. It’s all hypothetical. Last year, I read 11/22/63 by Stephen King. It’s about a man who goes back in time and saves John F. Kennedy. In King’s imagination, the world ended up in a worse situation because of that.

Some may say that there’s no way. Kennedy would have made things better. However, Stephen King’s book is just as valid as anyone’s. He writes fiction, and that is what “hypothetical history” really is.

John F. Kennedy’s death was a tragedy that affected everyone who was alive at the time. It changed the course of American history. We just don’t know how it changed that history. The study of history is difficult enough without wondering what might have been. We can only study what happened and try to figure it out as accurate as possible.

By looking at “hypothetical history,” I believe that we are doing the people of the past an injustice. Instead of thinking about what Jackson or Kennedy might have done, we should focus on who they were and what they did. That’s the best way to honor people who we are interested in. Let’s get to know them the best we can. We can never really know the real people, but that is better than trying to know them in an imaginary way.

Digging Up Bones

26 Feb

Most days in a history department are what you would expect. We teach classes. We talk to students about issues that they may have. We grade. Boy, do we ever grade. We also find time to serve on committees, do research and perform other activities. However, there are a few days when something different happens, and we have a historical mystery drop into our laps. That’s when our historian/detective curiosity kicks into gear.

It happened several months ago when I was looking at the website for The Tennessean, Nashville’s daily newspaper. They had put together a slide show of historical sites in our area. It included the usual suspects: the Hermitage, home of Andrew Jackson; the Jack Daniels Distillery. You know, things that people around the country may have heard of.

As I scanned the photos, it was surprising to see the Mitchell House, a historic home in my town.

This is not where Gone With the Wind was written.

This is not where Gone With the Wind was written.

It was more surprising to read that Margaret Mitchell had written Gone With the Wind in the same house. This couldn’t have been true because Margaret Mitchell was from Atlanta, and she was writing about Atlanta. Besides, no one had ever heard of this before.

I told all of this to my cohort, who has a great blog about Jacksonian America, and he went into action. He contacted experts and discovered, not surprisingly, that she did not write the book in my town. After that, he contacted The Tennessean to tell them how wrong they were. As far as I know, the mistake was never changed.

I wonder how many Gone With the Wind fans have found themselves at the wrong house.

Frankly, my dear. I don't know where we are.

Frankly, my dear. I don’t know where we are.

Today, another mystery appeared when we received an email from a man who graduated from our university in the early 1970s. According to the story, he and several students were interested in archaeology, but the school did not offer classes in this subject. With the help of a faculty member, they formed an archaeology club and organized a dig a few counties over.

To their surprise, they found the skeletal remains of a Native American women who died over 300 years earlier. They exhumed the remains and sent them to the University of Tennessee to be further examined. After that examination, the remains were returned to our university and placed on display in the administration building.

(I interrupt this story to make an observation. It is hard to believe that there was a time when displaying the remains of a human in a lobby was considered acceptable. Happily, things have changed through the years.)

The man who emailed wanted to know what happened to the remains, and that is where the mystery begins. Both of us, myself and my history cohort, graduated from the university that we now work, and neither of us has ever heard of the skeleton in the lobby. Because of that, we are going to contact some “old timers” to see if they know anything.

Hopefully, we can locate the remains and return them to a proper burial, but I suspect that they are lost. When we bury our loved ones, it is hard to imagine someone digging them up and putting them on display. But, it can happen. Just ask any Native American.