[Note: Since I was first introduced to it, I’ve loved the term contingent to describe event(s) in history that suggest there is no single unstoppable, ideological wave moving humanity in some preordained direction (e.g., democracy, Christianity, Marxism, progress, the Enlightenment). Rather, there are crucial times when events are determined by human action (or inaction); coincidence; or luck (which can of course be either good or bad). Now that I’ve retired, when I’m in a retrospective mood—which is much of the time—I find myself focusing on the contingent events, coincidences, and (mostly good) luck that have brought me to this point. This is the first of two posts.]
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I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, and Newark, Delaware, the oldest of three children in a struggling working-class family. Only two members of my extended family had attended college, an uncle who studied engineering after World War II at the University of Delaware, thanks to the G.I. Bill; and an aunt who graduated from Delaware a decade or so later.
Whether my siblings or I would be able to go to college was an open question. I loved school and began to dream of attending the University of Delaware to study engineering, naturally, as my uncle had. Yet, my family didn’t appear to have the financial wherewithal to make that possible. Even before I graduated from Newark High School, I decided that engineering was not for me, despite my uncle’s sterling example. I sometimes struggled with math and science, and I did not enjoy either one very much; instead, I nurtured a love of history.
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In the fall of 1962, after my parents secured a bank loan, I entered the University of Delaware as a “History Education” major, hoping to teach history in high school. Then, luck—or contingency—intervened. The dean of the Education school summoned entering freshmen to a meeting, where he outlined the curriculum for the next four years. I learned that I would only be able to study history at the survey level, because of the department’s requirement that I take various “education” courses, which did not set well with me.
A few days later, I transferred to the School of Arts and Sciences (or, as we liked to call it, “Air and Sunshine”), and became a history major. As a result, not only did I deepen my knowledge of history over the next four years, but I also was able to take courses in areas like English and American literature, Political Science, Philosophy, Economics, Psychology, and Music that helped broaden my horizons and proved quite beneficial once I began teaching.
There was a larger world in which my college career unfolded, the era of the Vietnam War. It soon became clear that, if I were to have any hope of graduating, I must join the Army ROTC program for four years. Basic ROTC was required of all able-bodied male students for their first two years. The final two years, Advanced ROTC, led to an officer’s commission and were elective, but any male who wished to graduate was, um, “strongly advised” to sign up for the advanced course.
There were still a few paths available to receive a draft deferment in mid-1964, but they were rapidly disappearing, and none applied to me. So, I enrolled in Advanced ROTC, and, thanks to the program’s stipend, along with money I earned as a dormitory adviser during my last two years and funds borrowed from my girlfriend Faith’s parents after my father declared bankruptcy, I was able to pay for my junior and senior years at Delaware.
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My military obligation was for two years of active duty in the U.S. Army during the height of American involvement in Southeast Asia (1966-1968). I entered the service as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Quartermaster Corps (QMC), a combat support (as opposed to a combat) branch. I approached the QMC’s basic officer training course at Fort Lee, Virginia, just as I would have an academic college course and did well in it. Likewise, I jumped into my advanced course at Fort Lee (believe it or not, on how to run an officers’ club! The Army’s choice, not mine!) enthusiastically and was one of only two members of my class (of twenty-eight or so) who didn’t go to Vietnam after completing the course. Instead, I was stationed at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, barely a half hour from the University of Delaware, where my girlfriend (and future wife) was finishing college. Can you say “contingency” and/or “luck”? Sure you can!
As my tour of duty wound down, I began to consider what to do next. I had married Faith in June 1967, and I also had eliminated three possible future careers (professional Army officer, restaurant manager, and government bureaucrat) while on active duty. I still wanted to teach history, so, throwing caution to the winds, I decided I would go to graduate school, earn a doctorate in history and, of course, secure a college or university teaching post upon completion.
Once again, contingency entered the picture. My first choice was the University of Wisconsin, Madison, but that fell through. I knew that I needed backup schools, so I also applied to my alma mater; Delaware accepted me but offered little in the way of financial aid.
While at Delaware, I had taken a course in eighteenth-century English history from Professor Robert Smith. Dr. Smith told the class at the end of the year that he was leaving Delaware for Emory University in Atlanta, a school I’d never heard of. But, as I plotted my future on the eve of leaving the Army, I applied to Emory and used Dr. Smith as a reference. Perhaps because of the combination of my undergraduate academic record, the Smith connection, and the fact that I had already completed my military obligation, Emory was eager to have me, offering a fellowship that amounted to a “free ride.”
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Graduate school was a wonderful experience. Emory supported me financially for five years; the G.I. Bill of the Vietnam era supplemented the university’s contribution during my first two years; and Faith (AKA, the “Willowy Bride”) also worked. So, I was being paid—handsomely, measured against our spartan lifestyle—to study a subject I loved, while trying to shut out events in the wider world (e.g., the decline and fall of our efforts in Vietnam).
Since I was attending graduate school in Atlanta, a dissertation topic in Georgia history made sense, because I assumed that most of the primary sources I needed would be readily available. However, destruction wrought either by the Civil War or by natural causes had played havoc with important manuscript and newspaper collections; dissertation research on the history of Georgia required trips to libraries and other repositories throughout the eastern United States.
In grad school, I practiced being a professor (teaching several classes of American History survey at Emory and a night course at Georgia Tech); researched, wrote, and typed my dissertation (all 620 pages of it!); and became a father. It was, all in all, an occasionally weird but altogether satisfying existence.
Yet, as I neared the end of the dissertation and began searching for employment, I discovered that there were few college history-teaching jobs out there. During my final year at Emory, Faith and I sent out more than one hundred queries to universities, colleges, and junior colleges but got few nibbles. Because I still was determined to teach history, in a mood of calculated desperation I decided to investigate the chances of plying that trade at the secondary level, in private (or independent) schools.
Operating under Plan B, I received two firm offers, one from a school for girls in Virginia, the other from a coed day school across town from Emory, The Westminster Schools. The headmistress of the girls school was so eager to hire me, not least because I was a male, that she dipped into her contingency fund to offer what she obviously felt was a munificent salary of $7500 (remember, this was in 1973!). As luck would have it, though, Westminster was willing to offer the relatively princely sum of $9500. Because we now had a child and realized that $7500 would not go far in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, Faith and I decided to join Westminster, but only “until something better came along.”
[Note: This post and the next appear, in slightly different form, as the Introduction to In Pursuit of Dead Georgians, a collection of essays on Georgia history–see below.]
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Copyright 2020 George Lamplugh
For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: