Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Baylor Professor James Vardaman: Memories and Obituary

Professor James W. Vardaman
Photo by Louis Muldrow

I've borrowed, and lightly edited, the following information and official obituary, all of which I believe was originally collected for Baylor University by Lori Fogleman:
"Baylor Mourns Passing of Professor Emeritus of History and Master Teacher James Vardaman" (Baylor Media Communications, Feb. 7, 2018)

Baylor University is mourning the passing of Professor Emeritus of History and Master Teacher James W. Vardaman, Ph.D., who died Jan. 31 in Waco. He was 89.

"Dr. James Vardaman was an iconic figure for thousands of students at Baylor University who were fortunate to take one of his classes in British, French, German, European and world history or journey with him on one of his numerous study abroad trips around the world," said Baylor President Linda A. Livingstone, Ph.D. "Dr. Vardaman was one of the University's most distinguished teachers, attaining the highest designation of Master Teacher. He was brilliant in the classroom, and he highly valued the open hours he spent with his students beyond teaching, which is a hallmark of a Baylor education."

A recent College of Arts and Sciences article stated that, "During his 33-year teaching career at Baylor University, Dr. Vardaman instilled a love of history in thousands of students and in the process he became one of the most beloved faculty members on campus. Many students would echo the sentiments of film director Kevin Reynolds, who recalled his time at Baylor by saying, "It is one of the greatest treasures of my life to be able to say, 'I took history with Jim Vardaman.'"

Many Baylor faculty members and friends have been sharing their remembrances of Dr. Vardaman, among them:

Robert M. Baird, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Master Teacher: "The contributions Jim Vardaman made over the years to the life of Baylor University were so many and diverse that if you had not witnessed it first hand, it would be hard to believe: the architect of Baylor's multifaceted study-abroad-program, shepherding hundreds, maybe thousands, of students over the years in his annual summer Baylor in London Program, the long-time chair of the Beall-Russell lecture committee that by dint of his persuasive persistence brought the likes of Bill Moyers, Edward Said, Carlos Fuentes, and Czeslaw Milosz to Baylor, and in the classroom a Master Teacher. Beyond the classroom he and his wife Betsy entertained countless students at meals in their home, many of these students from foreign countries so in need of the warm hospitality of the Vardamans. We have, indeed, lost a giant in the life of Baylor."

Wallace Daniel, Ph.D., former Baylor history professor and Distinguished University Professor of History, Mercer University: "Jim Vardaman is the very image of Baylor -- totally committed to students, to teaching and to scholarship, firm in his belief that teaching is the noblest of professions and convinced that one must strive to be the best one can be, all the time, every day. He not only expected this of himself, but it was this quality that he expected of his students, and he inspired it in them. In his legendary trips with students abroad, he brought students to the world. As chair of the Beall Russell Lectures for nearly 20 years and the international leaders whom he invited here, he also brought the world to Baylor. In so many ways, his contributions to Baylor and its students are profound."

Babs Baugh of San Antonio, longtime Baylor University supporter and friend of the Vardamans, president of the Eula Mae and John Baugh Foundation: "I never had a class with Dr. James Vardaman, but his impact on my life was profound. I had the privilege of helping him plan many of his travel experiences -- especially with friends going anywhere he wanted to go. They knew that it would be interesting to them because he knew the history of every place and would share that knowledge with us. He often began his lecture for the day by saying to the group, 'I insult your intelligence by telling you this but . . .' No one was ever insulted! With that brilliant mind came little spurts of great humor and the singing of the Marine Corps Hymn – all three verses. This great teacher loved God, Betsy, his country and Baylor University, his sister Ann Miller and his many friends. If you are fortunate enough to be one of the latter group, you will understand why we will miss him so much."

Cullen Smith, B.B.A. (Law) '48, J.D. '50, retired Waco attorney and longtime friend of the Vardamans: "Jim joined the Marine Corps at age 16 toward the end of World War II. The day he received his discharge, he drove to Waco and entered Baylor. Because he had not graduated from high school, he was accepted conditionally. Years later when a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa was established at Baylor, Jim was made a graduate member. Jim was loved by his students. I have attended two dinners honoring him. Students flew in from all over the world, literally, to honor him. On numerous occasions when my wife Ann and I have joined Betsy and Jim at local restaurants, former students of all ages would come up to speak to him. Amazingly, he always remembered them by name. It was obvious they loved him. Jim loved to travel. He led numerous tours to Great Britain, Europe and the Middle East. In cities, we would often have a local professional guide to take us around. I would begin to notice Jim standing on one leg and then the other. Finally he could stand it no longer. He would correct the guide about the facts, one after another. If we had another tour the next day, the first thing the guide wanted to know was if Professor Vardaman was present. I have heard, and I believe it is true, that on one occasion, a member of the British Parliament asked to be temporarily excused during a debate in order to check with Dr. Vardaman at Baylor regarding some facts about English history."

Dr. Vardaman’s obituary was published today (February 7, 2018):

Dr. James W. Vardaman was born on Nov. 26, 1928, in Dallas, Texas, where he grew up as the youngest of five children of Daisy and Ephraim Jeremiah Vardaman. In 1945, at 16 years of age, he enlisted in the U.S. Marines and served in the Philippines as well as on board the Pasadena. His military service provided him an introduction to the wider world, to war and the aftermath of war, to typhoons, to sergeants and their disciplinary techniques, and to fellow enlisted men in the Marines with whom he lived and served. His lifelong regard for friendships made during those years was always specific to the individual. He spoke of fellow Marines warmly by name, state, hometown and pithy remarks that were as fresh in his mind at 89 as they had been when he was 20.

He also maintained lifelong regard for those military and government leaders whose values and vision enabled them to conduct themselves by admirable and lofty standards.

Most importantly at that juncture in his life, military service in World War II gave Dr. Vardaman the door through which he walked into higher education -- the G.I. Bill. He was grateful forever. Being decommissioned at one minute after midnight on March 18, 1949, at a base in Oklahoma, he then drove all night to Waco, Texas, where he enrolled that day, the last day of registration for the spring quarter at Baylor University. As a distinguished scholar and historian later in life, he reflected on occasion that the most significant moment in his life was seeing his name and grade posted on a small piece of paper by a professor’s door in the summer of 1949. He had passed a university course – and was going to be able to become a college student at Baylor.

His intensity for learning and maximizing every day of higher education had begun. Beginning with gratitude for his sister, Ann Miller, who tutored him at Baylor, his love of all things literary and historical grew with each year of extraordinary courses and undergraduate studies. The fine history faculty, particularly Dr. Bruce Thompson, affirmed their student's aptitudes and encouraged him to consider a career as an historian because it would be a perfect fit. It was. He completed Baylor in two years, taking overloads each term. He earned his master’s degree at the University of Minnesota in 1952 and his Ph.D. in British History at Vanderbilt in 1957.

His teaching career included winning the top teaching award at TCU, then earning a special place in the lore of Virginia Military Institute for five years as well as taking wide-ranging opportunities for summer teaching and fellowships, including University of Virginia and University of North Carolina. However, in 1967, when several Baylor professors and Judge McCall contacted him regarding an open position in the history department, there was no question what would be his next step in academe: He was coming "home" to his alma mater. Here he thrived and received many teaching honors. He was named a Master Teacher in 1993 and elected to Phi Beta Kappa, as an alumnus.

He chaired the Beall-Russell Lectures in the Humanities for nine years, bringing to campus distinguished national and international giants, such as Nobel Prize recipient Czeslaw Milosz; the Very Reverend Michael Mayne, dean of Westminster Abbey; A. S. Byatt; Edward Said; Bill Moyers; Robert Haas and many others. He taught in and then directed many international programs for the University, including teaching in Baylor in Vienna and Baylor in London before becoming director of Baylor in the British Isles, a program housed for nearly 20 years within the confines of Westminster Abbey at Westminster School. His international teaching included serving an exchange professor to the Yunnan Nationalities University in Kunming, PRC, in 1984-85 and was followed by a memorable trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway across Russia. He began the semester-long program for Baylor in Maastricht, The Netherlands, in 1995, a program that continues to be a proud feature of Baylor’s international programs and draws students and faculty from across the University. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Dr. Vardaman also led many alumni trips across Europe, to South America, and most notably, of course, back to the British Isles and Ireland. His relationship with former students was a great treasure to him, as were his friends and family. Dr. Vardaman concluded his tenured years at Baylor in 2000 after 33 years of teaching and inspiring students to ground their worldviews within the vast narrative of humankind.

At retirement, Dr. Vardaman built a library to contain about 5,000 of his favorite books. He could be found there many hours a day for the past almost two decades. Drawing on his vast knowledge, he was the perfect reader of the great tomes across all times and spaces, countries and civilizations. He often offered up sober details about historical events and personages to his family and close friends, insights that the most learned scholars could possibly have profited from knowing. (One point among many to remember: the Magna Carta was "sealed," not "signed" by King John at Runnymede.)

In 2017, a professorship in the history department was established in Dr. Vardaman's name. As additional tributes have been lifted to Dr. Vardaman's memory and legacy this week, Michael Livingstone, a former student, has described him as "my earthquake." Another, Dr. Scott Harper, reflected on his professor in terms of the Dylan Thomas poem "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" and speaks for many when he says: "I have never known anyone like Dr. Vardaman who more raged against the dying of the light: the light of enlightenment and education, the light of justice for wrongs committed at every level of society and culture, the light of friendship and love, the light of his own life. He did not go gentle into anything."
I took perhaps only two of Vardaman's courses, but he asked me to serve as his grader for my final year at Baylor, and I not only got to know him well, I kept in touch with him over the years after I left Baylor, and I can honestly say that we were friends. But I never knew so much about him as I now know after reading memories such as these and writings of his own that I found online. I can now say not only that he was a great teacher and a great friend, but also a great man.

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