Historians Among Us
By Deborah Burkett
Been meaning to write this column for awhile, but the recent death of noted East Texas historian, Archie McDonald of Stephen F. Austin State University makes the topic all the more poignant. With almost 50 years of teaching, research and writing, Archie left a strong legacy; he inspired many, showed us the importance of our past while instilling a love of its study.
Archie could tell a story with the best of them. I remember attending a dinner meeting with Archie as the keynote speaker, he encapsulated the 'Fight for Texas Independence', and even though you knew the outcome-you found yourself mesmerized.
Closer to home, once retired my life took a turn thanks to local historians. Their love of the past provided a future interest for me. A few of these historians are highlighted here.
Dr. Jane Purtle was the first Cherokee County Historical Commission (CCHC) member I met. In early 2008 we bonded over a mutual interest in oral history at a conference in Tyler. She sponsored my application to CCHC and there I found many kindred spirits, historians all.
One of note is Mary Taylor. What sets her apart is her knack for research. Because of her efforts literally hundreds of individuals have benefitted from her research, many applied to organizations which require detailed genealogical documentation. For years she traveled to courthouses many out of state, spent hours poring over records. Today hours are spent on the computer communicating with courthouse personnel and utilizing genealogical websites. Mary has taught many about their family history, me included. She knows more about my Long and Langston ancestors than I do!
Historians among us who also happen to be in the newspaper business are best typified by the late Emmett Whitehead and his wife Marie of the Rusk Cherokeean. They told clear and compelling stories through their 'collective portraits' of Cherokee County which are now archived for researchers. Today Marie, her daughter and son- in- law, Terri and Robert Gonzales, continue that tradition.
Local columnists often focus on history. County Judge Chris Davis, pens a weekly newspaper column featuring stories of everyday life in Cherokee County. His enthusiasm and love of history evident as his local characters speak to us.
Today the World Wide Web provides an opportunity for many budding authors to share their take on history. The faculty at the Stephen F. Austin Center for Regional Heritage Research has developed a site which facilitates such endeavors. I'm fortunate to be part of the Center's Local Writers' Website. My monthly column, along with many other authors in East Texas, focuses on history in our respective counties.
In one's quest for the past, librarians are still a boon to researchers. Virginia Singletary of Alto and Barbara Crossman of Jacksonville have spent countless hours answering my questions, providing me with documents, all the while marveling on the rich history of East Texas.
The spirits of late historians remain among us in Cherokee County, our job is to continue what they started. I never met the late Bernard Mayfield (CCHC) but talked to him on the phone several times. He shared his boyhood memories of sitting unnoticed among his elders at the family store in the Blackjack community. Bernard never forgot those days.
You never know when someone is listening. Which youngsters will continue to carry the torch of local history? Do you tell your children and grandchildren stories about their ancestors? Cherish old photographs and attend reunions? If so, you too are an 'historian among us'. Keep it up!