Southern Jaunt #3 — My Journey to NASSH

I just finished 3 week trip through the South, visiting family, attending a workshop and conference, grading APUSH exams, and enjoying some time away from Indiana. I called the excursion my Southern Jaunt. This is my third post in a series of posts about my trip.

As I was driving out of Atlanta following the annual meeting of the North American Society for Sport History, I couldn’t help but think, “Brenda’s smiling.”

I first “discovered” sport history when I was a sophomore at Baker University. After taking a required “Laboratory in Research Methods Course” during the fall semester, which met in the reading room of our on-campus archive, I became aware of scholarly journals. After that class (and still to this day), I made it part of my routine to stop in the periodicals section of the library and browse the new history journals. One of them that always caught my was Kansas History the journal of the Kansas State Historical Society. In its Autumn 2005 issue, there appeared an article entitled, “‘Can Basketball Survive Wilt Chamberlain?:’ The Kansas Years of Wilt the Stilt” by Aram Goudsouzian. That article gave me the crazy idea that I could study sports and history at the same time.

That spring my first experiement doing sport related history was in a Roman history course. For our research paper we were assigned to find a ‘gauge of romanization in Britain.’ As a student of classical Latin (although the word is originally Greek), I was familiar with the palaestra, a Roman exercise grounds often located near a bath complex. The palaestra was an important part of Roman daily life, especially soldiers and elites. After discussing it with my professor, I decided to read a series of archaeological articles and maps to find out if and where palaestrae were located in Britain. It turns out they did exist, and I was able to find a pattern where and explanation of why. The paper, although fairly simple and tad bit too short, was a success. I was on my way to becoming a sport historian.

My early passion for classical Roman and medieval history quickly subsided the more I was pushed into primary source research. U.S. history made more sense, and better aligned with my new-found interest in sport history. At the time, however, I remained a history and secondary education major intent on teaching junior high or high school and most likely coaching. Because of the double major, I elected to write my required senior thesis the spring of my junior year, so that I could student teach the spring of my senior year. The topic of that thesis was “The History of Men’s Track and Field at Baker University” (which I turned into a digital exhibit in 2013 and spoke about at NASSH in Atlanta).

Writing my undergraduate thesis required copious amounts of research. I routinely hung out in the archives 2 or 3 days a week for several hours. I quickly developed a good working relationship with the archivist, and she was impressed by my dedication and diligence. Indeed, I fell in love with researching that semester. After finishing my thesis (and earning a coveted, rare A from my professor, Dr. Exon), the archivist asked if I’d like to intern over the summer. I gladly accepted the offer.

The archivist was Brenda Day. She had worked at Baker university for nearly two decades by the time I met her. She was eccentric and friendly woman that lived and breathed local and campus history. One of her passions was the Old Castle Museum (Baker’s first building, and the first university building in Kansas), which she felt a paranormal connection to (this led to a later study I did on the history of ghost stories at Baker), and helped save and renovate years before I arrived on campus. Brenda was also a leader in the efforts to develop the Black Jack Battlefield and Nature Trust, and taught a special class on the topic to dig deeper into its Bleeding Kansas and Civil War connections.

During my internship I was tasked with helping the marketing department prepare for the university’s sesquicentennial celebration. Basically, I did research for them and distilled stories into short segments that they could use on display panels and in brochures. I also got to explore the other functions of the archives, like help patrons who visited during the annual United Methodist Conference meeting to do research, re-house and catalog items, and process a collection of my own choosing. As a budding sport historian, I chose to process and re-house a file cabinet that belonged to a long retired Chemistry Professor, E.J, Cragoe. He served as the faculty athletic representative from Baker University to the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference (KCAC) for over 20 years. He also served as Secretary and later Vice President of the KCAC. The collection included: the official conference meeting minutes, eligibility reports, heat-sheets and programs for the annual track meet, correspondence with important athletic officials and documents various and sundry. When I first got my hands on it, it had been sitting in the archive (which was then an open archive with very few finding aids) for a while as if it was wheeled in on a dolly and left untouched for decades. It was wonderful experience, and further fueled my passion for sport history.

It was during this time that I decided that I might try to do something other than become a junior high (I liked that age better than high school) social studies teacher. Archival work was kind of fun, research was fun, museums were neat. I had all sorts of options! AND, because I decide the summer before my senior year, I could drop my secondary education major, take more history classes, and apply to graduate school. Things sure seemed like they made a lot of sense then! I was living the dream in the summer of 2007.

Of course, the sudden decision to not become a teacher took quite a few people by storm. Sport history sounded great, but few of my professors had actually heard of it. One recalled maybe seeing a textbook in a catalog (it was Richard O. Davies book), but he didn’t know anyone who did it. Another professor confessed she’d always thought I’d make a great teacher, she sensed it about me, and was a little surprised that I wanted to give academia a try. She offered to help me nonetheless, and gave my materials her ever-intimidating once over, leaving them bloody with her trademark red ink.

The unstable or at least uncertain career prospects also scared some of my family. I could teach for a few years, then go back, they suggested. My Grandmother, to her credit, thought it was smart to pursue my passion now instead of get stuck teaching and regret never giving it a shot 5 years later when I had a mortgage and maybe a family. At that point it would be too late and I’d be too comfortable, she advised.

Amidst this uncertainty, Brenda believed in me and encouraged me. She said it might take time, but I would fit the right fit and become a sport historian. “You might just have to write your own ticket,” she reassured me, with unwavering confidence. Brenda encouraged me to become a sport historian before anyone else, and after she saw my passion in the archives, knew that it was what I was meant to be.

The story gets sad, and little disappointing from there. I dropped my education major, but failed to get into any of the graduate schools I applied to. I aimed higher than I realized, but was also a victim of poor timing. The economic recession of 2008 doomed my dreams like so many others. Luckily, I was offered a graduate assistant coaching position. I got a “free” master’s degree, while coaching track and field. My undergraduate mentors thought this was the best situation for me. It gave me time to decide between academia and coaching, while gaining experience doing both.

Brenda offered to let me stay on at the archives (I continued as a volunteer intern throughout my senior year). At the end of my internship, sometime in the early fall of 2007, her cancer came back. She’d beaten it once before, but this time it was more serious and more aggressive. By the middle of the fall of 2007, I was more or less running the archives alone. A graduate intern from the University of Kansas oversaw the museum and administrative duties, but I did the day-to-day things. At one point Brenda and I talked about the possibility of me taking over the position full-time in the future, but she thought I was destined for something greater. She once again said, “you gonna write your own ticket” and become a sport historian.

During the 2008-2009 school year, I worked in the archives in the morning, coached in the afternoon, and took classes toward a Masters of Liberal Arts in the evening. By late-January of that year I had become disenchanted with coaching. The long hours, constant travel, and disagreements with the head coach wore on me. Although I’d already missed all of the important December and January graduate school deadlines, I began looking at history programs with sport historians. I serendipitously discovered Richard O. Davies at the University of Nevada, Reno. They had a March 1st deadline and offered funding. I rushed the application, writing new materials, emailing Dr. Davies, and asking the graduate advisor if my MLA would count toward the PhD or I’d need to get an MA. They said they’d consider my app for both, and got the materials just under the wire. It was the only school I applied to, so I kept it quiet, in case I needed to return for the second year of my graduate assistantship.

In early April I found out I was accepted, without funding, and only for the MA. Though disappointing, I still intended on going, hoping they could find me some money and determined to make it work. I was never able to tell Brenda the good news. She was near death by then, frail and unable to type. One of my professors assured me that she knew, and was proud of me. Her faith meant the world to me, and pushed me to pursue my dream. Brenda died on April 25, 2009.

In August, I left Kansas for Nevada. I was on my way to becoming a sport historian.

My graduate career in Reno was nothing short of a success. While Aram Goudsouzian, a Purdue PhD and Randy Roberts student, was the first sport historian I ever read, Richard O. Davies was the first one I ever met. From day 2 he set my eyes on Purdue for doctoral work, helped me craft a thesis topic, outline efficient plan of study, and pushed me to get done quickly. Dick Davies remains an incredible mentor and friend, and has worked tirelessly to help me advance my career and improve me work.

Two years after arriving in Nevada, I came to Purdue to work with Randy Roberts. Although my time here has been less expedient than I would have liked, I’ve continued on my journey toward becoming a sport historian. Yet, in all of my years working in the field, doing research, writing my master’s thesis, publishing book chapters, starting a blog, I never attended NASSH. I joined in 2010, and hoped to go, but it never fit into my travel plans, it was in an inconvenient location, or I didn’t have the money. This year, I attended my first NASSH, taking another important step in becoming a sport historian.

Although my journey towards becoming a sport historian is not yet complete, attending the conference felt like a homecoming. For the first time I was surrounded by fellow sport historians. I’d known a few, and been around a handful or so of them at other conferences, but NASSH was an entirely different level. I soaked it in all week. I attended as many sessions as I could. I Tweeted, I took notes, I exchanged business cards, and marveled at meeting professors who I only knew from my bookshelves. I felt a proud camaraderie with many of my fellow attendees. There was the group of bloggers who I knew only from online but felt like friends. There was the “Purdue Mafia” of alumni that I’d heard stories about and felt sort of like fraternity brothers. It was a massive homecoming reunion centered around our shared passion.

It was, in so many ways, NASSH was the culmination of a dream I’d been working towards for so many years. And, the most fitting part was that my paper discussed my undergraduate thesis. Those long hours in the archives, the advice of Brenda, her unwavering faith in me, were on display in my session. The dedication of my master’s thesis, which I defended in 2011, reads “For Brenda, who lives on in the process of history.”  She lived on at NASSH this year, and she was smiling the whole time.

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