A revered historian ­-- the 'cheerful assassin' -- inspires a surprise tribute by protégés

February 2, 2013 8:49:43 PM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


Some of John Marszalek's friends are pretty good at keeping a secret. The distinguished scholar's wife, Jeanne, was even in on it.  


For three years or more, unbeknownst to the Mississippi State Giles Distinguished Professor Emeritus, a network of his former doctoral students worked on a tribute to the mentor who had so stirred their passion for studying the Civil War era and its influence on shaping America. 


"Of Times and Race: Essays Inspired by John Marszalek," released in January by University Press of Mississippi, explores topics ranging from the elusive undercurrent of Unionist sentiment in Mississippi to the role sports, especially boxing, played in mending racial fences in the west during Reconstruction. 


Through their probing essays, contributors Michael Ballard, Mark Cheathem, Thomas Cockrell, James Scott Humphreys, Stephen Michot, Horace Nash and Timothy Smith create a unique look at aspects of African-American history from the Jacksonian Era to the early 20th century. Dr. Edna Greene Medford of Howard University, a prominent authority on black history, contributes a closing chapter that ties together the essays and addresses the larger themes. 


Taken in whole, the writers demonstrate many nuances of African-Americans' struggle to grasp freedom, respect and assimilation. And they reaffirm the impact the man they called "the cheerful assassin" (of papers) had on their own careers as professors and instructors of history at universities and colleges throughout the South. 


"Over the years, the areas I've been most interested in are the Civil War period, race relations and African-American history. Race has had a tremendous influence on about every aspect of American history," said Marszalek, in his office in MSU's Mitchell Memorial Libraries. Although he retired in 2002, he's answered the call back into service more than once. He currently serves as executive director of the Ulysses S. Grant Association. 


His reputation certainly played a vital role in bringing the U.S. Grant Papers to MSU, said Dr. Michael Ballard, recently retired MSU professor and university archivist, coordinator of the Congressional and Political Research Center and associate editor of the U.S. Grant publishing projects at the university. He was Marszalek's second doctoral student. It was Ballard who hatched the idea for the book. It was also his idea to keep it a surprise. 




The unveiling 


The literary cat came out of the bag in the spring of 2012, at a dinner preceding a lecture.  


"I said to my wife that something was really weird; people seemed to be ignoring me, wouldn't look me in the eye," the professor said, with a laugh. His bewilderment increased when, at the dinner location, a colleague seemed to be standing in the doorway, blocking it. 


The secret his friends were trying to keep under wraps was that many of the book's contributors had flown or driven in for the occasion. They all wanted to be present when a 6-foot-by-4-foot image of the book cover was unveiled and their former professor first heard about the tribute being compiled.  


"It just blew my mind," said Marszalek, remembering that special evening. "I almost lost it. They did a great job pulling it together; the funny thing about it is this thing was years in the process, and I never understood it was happening." 


Dr. Mark Cheathem was one of the former graduate students on hand that night. 


"He was just shocked, and he was obviously touched; I've never seen John very emotional, but he was obviously emotional about it. It was a great moment," said the associate professor of history at Cumberland University in Lebanon, Tenn., who received his Ph.D. from MSU in 2002. 


A second surprise came in late December 2012, at a retirement reception honoring Ballard, when Marszalek's longtime friend took the opportunity to reveal the actual book, fresh from the publisher. 




Molding the future 


In the book's preface, his former grad students acknowledge that Marszalek was a tough taskmaster who pushed them to never be satisfied with anything less than their best efforts.  


"The cheerful assassin" title originated with one of the professor's colleagues, but the students embraced it, even presenting Marszalek with a wooden plaque with the words on it -- which he immediately displayed in his office. 


"He basically assassinates your papers, but he does it in such a cheerful way -- and he's very good at it," said Dr. Tim Smith, who received his doctoral degree from MSU in 2001 and now is a lecturer of history at the University of Tennessee at Martin. 


Marszalek is the reason Smith chose MSU for his graduate work.  


"I was advised to apply to a big-name college, or study under a well-respected, big-name historian -- and he's a big name in Civil War history," Smith explained. "He is the epitome of a mentor. He's taken care of me and provided all kinds of opportunities, not only as a student of his, but someone I consider a friend. And he's still looking out for me; he still reads everything I write -- and he still marks it up like crazy," he chuckled. 




Around the table 


It's hard to talk about John without talking his wife, Jeanne, said Cheathem, who, like the other graduate students, feasted often at the Marszaleks' table.  


"Thanks to the Marszaleks' hospitality, we all became a family, at ease with him and his family and with one another," Ballard shared in the book's preface, emphasizing the genuine friendship and caring relationships that developed and continue to this day. 


Jeanne Marszalek feels the seeds of her husband's mentoring philosophy is rooted in his own experience. 


"I think he had professors who took him under their wing, and they became friends. I think he saw that as his role when he became a professor; these people weren't just students, they became almost like parts of our family. We still think of them almost like children," she emphasized. 


For the professor, whose extensive list of credentials includes more than a dozen books published and numerous honors, people-to-people connections are as much at the heart of his career as is this country's past. Guiding graduate students who share the same passion for history, who want to spend the rest of their lives studying and teaching it, has been a privilege. 


Of the book's contributors, he said, "They've all just done so well. It's like watching your own kids. I'm proud of all of them," he said with feeling. 


"Of Times and Race," co-edited by Ballard and Cheathem, reveals fascinating accounts of American history and offers a significant resource for this and future generations in understanding race relations. It is also a distinctive way, as Dr. Tim Smith said, "to honor a great man and a great historian." A great historian ­-- still cheerful -- who continues to make his mark in the academic world and in the lives of those he taught.

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.