A Conversation with Carol Reardon (part four)

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(part four in a series)

I’m speaking this week with historian Carol Reardon, who mentioned a few of her role models earlier in the conversation: Jay Luvaas, Charles Roland, and George C. Herring. “[T]hey provided me with a template of different things that I want to think about doing in my professional life,” Carol told me. I asked her to elaborate.

Carol Reardon: First thing they did, of course, was they made sure I met all the standards of the profession. I mean, they were tough. I can’t say I really minded. I mean, that’s why I wanted them. So they put me on the path to being as good a historian as I could possibly make myself into.

Chris Mackowski: They delivered.

Carol: They did. No question about it.

I don’t know if George [Herring] remembers this, but I have never forgotten it. It was the very first day I showed up at the University of Kentucky, and I was having my first meeting with the director of graduate studies—that was Lance Banning at the time. I’m having a discussion with Banning about what courses I should take that first semester, and one of them was the American Diplomatic History course that Herring was offering.  I just made the comment, “Well, I think I should probably take that because it would be very relevant to my interest in military history.” Then this disembodied voice from around the corner goes, “Damn right it would be.”

What’s that? What’s going on?

Well, I finished my meeting, and I walked out and, of course, it’s Herring’s office right next door—and he was apparently waiting. When I walked out the door, he just wiggled his finger at me: “Come on in here a minute.” And he said, “You don’t know how true it will be yet, but I’m going to make you a promise.”

And I said, “yes?”

He said, “By the time you leave here, I’m going to drag you into the twentieth century, kicking and screaming if need be.”

Of course, that did happen—and I don’t think I screamed that badly. But he became the editor of Diplomatic History, the journal of the Society of Historians of American Foreign Relations. Because I’d had some previous editing experience during my South Carolina years, he asked me to be the editorial assistant and later promoted me to assistant editor. What a great opportunity for a graduate student.

But, you know, I got to watch him in action: I saw him dealing with other big names in the profession. I watched him make a lot of hard judgments on the quality of various papers. I watched him not back down when a very senior scholar would submit a paper that he did not think was as publishable as it could be, and how he was going to argue with them and convince them to re-write, and if they would not, say, “Well, sorry we aren’t going to publish it.” I saw an awful lot of good scholarship, but also outstanding integrity in the way he dealt with those kinds of issues. And, you know, there’s no way that would not make an impression on me.

When I first arrived at Kentucky, Charlie Roland wasn’t there. He was up at West Point being the visiting professor up there. So I went through my whole first year without meeting him. But when he came back, I finally got a chance to meet him. He just has this little twinkle in his eye. And he would start up: “So you want to be a military historian?” He was just playing with me, and I sort of knew that going in. It turned out that he and Jay had talked about me a good deal. He wanted to see if I would stand up and defend myself. We developed a pretty strong relationship, as well.

In his case, he had been the president of the Southern Historical Association. He had served on the Department of the Army Historical Advisory Committee. He had done a number of service related things that were not quite in the usual academic path, and those kinds of things intrigued me. In time, I served on the DAHAC just like he had. I got involved in professional organizations.

And to circle it back to Jay, one of the things Jay had done was to serve as president of the Society for Military History back in the 1970’s. That was an organization they all thought I should become active in. The seed was planted that probably I wanted to do more than just pay dues. As it turned out, that was the organization—more than any of the Civil War organizations—it was the Society for Military History where I decided to fly my flag. Ultimately, I became a regional coordinator and was surprised as all get out when I was elected vice president, and then became president and re-elected for a second term.

When I look back at my career, I started pointing out different things: “Well, okay this is sort of a Roland-Herring influence, or that’s a Roland-Luvaas, or that’s a Luvaas,” and that sort of thing.”

At some point—and this is about mid-career when I saw how things were laying out—I made another promise to myself: “Okay, I’m going to do something that none of them ever did. I’ve got to go one step beyond.  I can’t just copy them, I need to go on a step beyond.”  That turned out to be my fourteen years of service on the Board of Visitors at Marine Corps University.

Chris: Wow.

Carol: That was something they hadn’t done.  I knew that this was kind of neat addition when they started asking me questions about what I was doing there.

If I had turned out to be an academic that simply looked at the traditional four walls of the classroom as my space, I think at this point in my life, I would be horribly disappointed in myself. Because, yeah, that’s not the way I was raised as a kid. And that’s not the way I was raised professionally, either. Those were the sorts of influences that were going to take me into a lot of different places outside the classroom, and that goes to include things like the activities that took me onto battlefields.

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Tomorrow, we’ll talk more about Carol’s time on the battlefields and her efforts to make those battlefields accessible to visitors.

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