Dr. Larry Nelson, photo credit Shannon Wells, Florence, AL
This story takes place in Florence, Alabama. It starts out on a hot, muggy, humid Wednesday morning in the middle of August, 1999. I was wearing exactly what my newly-pledged sorority told me to wear: a bright blue Alpha Delta Pi bid-day t-shirt and khaki shorts. I had a brand new, dark blue Jansport bookbag securely fastened on my back, jam-packed with 3 heavy books and plenty of brand new binders, and I started on what seemed like a long walk from the Rice Hall “residence facility” to my very first college class ever in beautiful Bibb Graves Hall at the University of North Alabama. And I was terrified.
Climbing the three flights of stairs with that heavy bookbag was a challenge. The gorgeous, wooden, winding staircase up the middle of the building is the sort of stairway that even those of us who are in shape would struggle climbing. Little did I know that what awaited me at the top of those stairs were a few things that would change my life and stick with me forever.
One of those life-changers at the top of the stairs was the first person I made eye contact with at approximately 8:47 am, when I arrived outside the classroom where my Intro to American History class was supposed to take place. Kellie Butler had one of those faces that you glance at once and know you’ve found a kindred spirit. I’m sure our conversation started out with me asking some neurotic questions, like “Are you here for American History? Does it start at 9 am? Am I in the right place? Are you in this class too? Who are you? Will you be my friend?” We became fast friends and, eventually, sorority sisters. It was true serendipity we ended up in that class together – and KB’s friendship today reminds me of the fact that you really never know when you’re going to meet someone who changes your life.
At approximately 8:57 am, another life-changer – the professor – arrived. He looked just like what you thought a professor *should* look like – jacket, dress slacks, book & papers in hand.
The room got quiet as Dr. Larry Nelson wrote the following words on the board – the same words he wrote on the board every single day for the rest of the year:
“Good history is intellectual history.”
(sometimes, if he was in a hurry, he’d abbreviate… “GHIIH”… but we all knew what it meant.)
And then he started his class the way he started it every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for the rest of the year:
“Hello, and welcome! It’s another beautiful day at the University of North Alabama.”
And, it truly was a beautiful day, every day, at UNA. Our class was early enough that we’d hear Leo the Lion roar at us on our way to class (or during class), and the way the sun shone through those old, huge windows made it feel like we were in a college classroom you’d see in a movie somewhere.
But these are all aesthetics; the sort of things that frame a story like this one and make it seem pretty and idealistic. The true beauty of this story, and the story I really want to tell, is the story of how Dr. Nelson and his class influenced me, personally and professionally.
Every college has that one professor that everyone knows, loves, and desperately tries to take. Dr. Nelson was that professor at UNA – which is really a huge compliment because UNA is full of amazing professors, many of whom I was fortunate enough to have in my 4 short years there.
He was the first history teacher I ever had who made me think about history in terms of more than just dates & names. He truly opened up my eyes, and expanded my worldview. He was a storyteller. This intrigued me. To think of history as a series of stories – stories which likely had different endings, and different tellings, and different versions – just totally rocked my world, and made me extremely interested to learn more. Had I not had him and experienced his perspective on history, I doubt I ever would have had an interest in communication history, which means I would never have picked up my current research project on the TVA which hopefully will be published in book form soon. I owe him a huge debt of gratitude for that alone.
With that said, I don’t exactly remember any of his lectures, in particular. But I do remember a lot of other things about him.
His attitude was infectious. I never saw the man in a bad mood. Students coming in late weren’t called out or shamed – they were encouraged to just sign the roll sheet after class (and we were encouraged to write notes to each other on that roll sheet as it got passed around the room). Classroom management wasn’t an issue – you wanted to listen to this man’s stories and hear what he had to say. How could you not? He was brilliant and energetic and obviously loved history.
He was a HUGE supporter of everything UNA-related – sports, student life events, Greek life stuff, like parties and mixers and philanthropy events – you name it, the man was there (probably with his sweet wife in tow). Not only did he show up to our crazy events, he took pictures for the end-of-the-year slide-show he made. The slide show he featured at his Christmas party, held at his home. For all of his students. I thought that was the coolest thing ever. He seriously extended an open invitation to his home to all of us – it was as much a part of the class announcements as reminders about the next exam. (He promoted it as an “edifying gathering” complete with “Check Cola and Verlie Cake.”)
During finals, when our papers were due, he held office hours in the library – not during the day, convenient for him, when we were likely doing other things (sleeping or watching Price is Right, maybe?) but at night, for those of us who procrastinated, from something like 7-11 pm, when we were in the middle of crunch time and most likely to need assistance with our papers.
At that point in my life, as a college freshman, the idea of becoming a college professor hadn’t even entered my brain. But I do remember thinking that if I ever did become a professor, I could only hope to be a fraction as awesome as Dr. Nelson – not just because everyone loved him, but because he did cool things like write books, admit when he was wrong about something, talk about important, intelligent topics, make students care about things they didn’t think they cared about, enjoy his family (who he dearly loved), and support his students in every single way. (He never once turned down a request to write a recommendation letter for me… and I asked for several, along with everyone else who tried out for things like the LaGrange Society). Those, to me, are characteristics of a truly great professor. It does all of us in academia well to remember (especially on those days when we feel like our lectures fall short or what we think is going to be an amazing class just doesn’t work for whatever reason) that students are probably not going to remember those days. They’ll instead (hopefully) remember things like our passion, our kindness, our enthusiasm, our knowledge, our desire to share that knowledge with others, and our ability to help others learn. At least, that’s what I remember about Dr. Nelson, one of the most influential people on my teaching style today.
The UNA community lost a great educator, and great man, last night to a terrible illness. I send my sincere condolences to his family, as well as a thank you to them for sharing him with us. The life of a professor is crazy and hectic, and the families of the truly great professors so often end up giving up some of their time with them so that they can belong, for a short time, to their students. It was a selfless sacrifice for his family to be supportive of his career, and I hope that they know just how much he meant to so many of us at UNA.
Dr. Nelson will be missed. But, to paraphrase another great professor’s comment today (thanks, Mrs. Darnell): aren’t we lucky to have had him?