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Past pleasures, future joys: historian retires after three-decade career

April 15, 2003

The year was 1972. Dorm residents finally had phones in their rooms. Female students ironed their hair and dressed in miniskirts; male students traipsed to class in sandals, their long hair parted in the middle and anchored behind their ears with small wire-framed glasses.

Young women had just been given the right to have male visitors in their dorm rooms. And following the example of "Cosmopolitan Magazine," "The All State" included a photo of a male student lying naked on a sofa, a large cowboy hat strategically placed on his lower abdomen.
April 15, 2003

The year was 1972. Dorm residents finally had phones in their rooms. Female students ironed their hair and dressed in miniskirts; male students traipsed to class in sandals, their long hair parted in the middle and anchored behind their ears with small wire-framed glasses.

Young women had just been given the right to have male visitors in their dorm rooms. And following the example of "Cosmopolitan Magazine," "The All State" included a photo of a male student lying naked on a sofa, a large cowboy hat strategically placed on his lower abdomen.

Howard Winn had just graduated from Ball State University and returned to Clarksvillethe city where he had grown upwith a love of history, a one-page vitae and the title ABD (all but dissertation) after his name.

He wasn't exactly happy to be here.

"Austin Peay was the last place I wanted to be when I got out of graduate school," he recalls. Like George in "It's a Wonderful Life," Winn had planned to escape the confines of his hometown the minute his diploma was in-hand.

But the economy was in the grip of a recession, and, as Winn recalls, "history professors were crawling out of the woodwork. It was very difficult to get a job teaching history."

As luck (fate?) would have it, one of Austin Peay's history professors had "gone off to get her doctorate," and Winn was asked to serve as her replacement on a temporary basis. He accepted the job. He wasn't where he wanted to be, but he was doing what he wanted to do and earning a paycheck.

Then, in a move that apparently surprised everyone, the person who had left to pursue his doctoral degree decided to return to the University.

Facing unemployment "and needing to eat," Winn took another Austin Peay positiondirector of safety and security. It wasn't as irrational as it sounds. "I'd been in the Air Force. I was an Air Force cop for four years."

He served as director for three years ("seemed like 33," he says). Meanwhile, he completed his dissertation, changed the initials after his nameand waited.

"I knew one person planned to leave, " he says. "I kept seeing him and saying, 'You gonna do it this year?'" Finally, the answer was yes. Winn resigned from his public safety post and went back to the history department. He has, as he says, "been there ever since."

Asked what he remembers most vividly about those early days of teaching, Winn says with a trace of wistfulness, "How much I enjoyed it."

Winn recalls the Austin Peay of 30 years ago as quite different from the Austin Peay of today. Enrollment was about 4,000 students. Research expectations were established by the faculty themselves, he says, and there were no student evaluations and other "claptrap. There wasn't any great pressure except what you put on yourself."

Of course, Winn was one of those who pressured himself not only to teach but also to conduct research. His first publication was in "The Tennessee Conservationist." Since then, he's published a dozen articles and more than 50 book reviews in journals such as the "Tennessee Historical Quarterly," "The Tennessee History of the South" and encyclopedias like the prestigious American National Biography.

His interest in Southern history is genetic, he says. "From the time I was a child I was immersed in it. My mother didn't go anywhere that she didn't go to the cemetery to see who was in it."

Life itself seemed to immerse Winn in history. When he was 12 years old, the next-door neighbor, who happened to be the mayor of Clarksville, took him to Independence, Mo., where he met President Harry Truman. "Mayor Kleeman had been Truman's lieutenant in the Army," Winn explains.

His interest in the past persisted throughout high school, a time when most kids use history class to catch up on their sleep. Wasn't he bored? "I've never been bored by history," Winn says. "I have been bored by historians, and I, in turn, have bored people," he adds, laughing.

Looking back over the years, Winn says one thing in the classroom has remained consistent from decade to decade. "The brightest students have generally been females. That's more and more the case as time goes on."

Student interest in history has been cyclical, he says. "When I started out, we were right in the middle of a student revolution. During the Vietnam War, I was a doctoral candidate teaching quiz sessions. Students were all charged up over the war.

"Then in the '70s and '80s, interest in what was going on in the world waned." Asked to speculate on why, Winn says perhaps people were simply tired. "We'd gone through a depression, WWII, the Korean War, Vietnam, the Cold War and the Civil Rights Movement. The nation was tired. Tired of people hollerin' at each other," he says, dropping the final consonant of the verb as native Middle Tennesseans are inclined to do.

Today, he says, interest in history is resurging. He believes an interest in citizenship may not be far behind, and that can't happen too soon. "Everybody's a taxpayer, but no one's a citizen," says the self-professed "Yellow Dog Democrat."

Being a good citizenwhich for Winn means working with the Montgomery County Historical Society and the Fort Defiance Park Committee, among other thingsis high on the list of post-retirement plans and pleasures.

"I'm looking forward to being with my wife, who's retired, and to not being on the school calendar for the first time since I was five. I can go on a vacation in February. I look forward to not grading papers, and I want to finish some projects."

While he won't be teaching, Winn says he will continue to learn. "I get up every day and learn something. When I see something I'm interested in, I want to pursue it, see where's it's going, see if anyone's interested in it."

It was, after all, learning as much as teaching, that kept him in the academy for 31 years. "Instructors aren't up there just to teach," he says. "They're there to learn. You have to keep learning."