When I wrote the dedication to my first book, I thanked six educators who had invested in me, from elementary school through graduate school. All of them were significant in their own way, but Monty Pope was without a doubt the most influential person in setting the course of my career. He mentored me throughout my undergraduate career, convinced me to attend grad school, and pushed me to study Andrew Jackson.
Monty passed away on Wednesday. It’s hard to convey concisely the many stories about him that I would like to tell. I could talk about the time he became convinced that he needed to expose a sheltered boy from East Tennessee to the world, so he threatened to take me to a gentleman’s club in Nashville. (We didn’t go.) I could talk about the time that he and I had a debate after class about the 1824 election and the meaning of plurality. (I was wrong.) I could talk about the time he became exasperated with me because I had calculated my course grade and didn’t take a quiz because it wouldn’t help or hurt me. (Not my finest moment of persistence.)
I could also mention the talks we had when I was his work-study student. Or the ones we had when I was in grad school. Or the ones we had when we became colleagues. I cherish those conversations, as do hundreds of students and dozens of colleagues. Monty was an easy person to talk to, even if he thought you were crazy for being anything other than a Democrat, an Episcopalian, or a Middle Tennessean. He told you that you could be better than you were, and he truly believed it. He wanted you to believe it about yourself, too. When he said that he was proud of you, it wasn’t idle talk.
Many professors influenced me in significant ways. Jim Dressler didn’t suffer fools lightly. Chris Duncan and John Markert were deliberately provocative. Fred Rolater and Libby Nybakken demonstrated mastery of a subject. Bill McKee and Connie Lester modeled professionalism. Thad Smith set high standards. Ren Crowell and Fred Colvin made lecturing look effortless. John Marszalek taught me work ethic and balance between work and family. Monty did many of these things, but from him, I took away two major lessons. The first was that at its heart, history is a story. The second, and even more important, lesson was that investing in students was the most important responsibility that professors owed.
I haven’t mastered either one of these two lessons from Monty, but in my day-to-day life as a history professor, those are the two lessons that I return to. I’ll never be a professor like he was, but I certainly aspire to be.