GREENWOOD - The study of history yields an understanding of people, places and events of the past, but Lander University Associate Professor of History Dr. Kevin Witherspoon believes there’s another payoff, too.
“We can learn from the past and apply it to what we do in the present,” he said.
For Witherspoon, a historical perspective is essential. “You use it all the time,” he said. “It becomes the point of context for everything. ”Witherspoon’s passion for history and ability to instill his enthusiasm for the subject in his students are leading reasons why he was named Lander’s Distinguished Professor of the Year for 2014.
A native of New Orleans, Witherspoon double-majored in English and history at Florida State University, where his parents met and his grandfather taught. “Wanderlust” brought him to the University of Maine, where he earned a master’s in American history. He returned to the Sunshine State to pursue a Ph.D. in American history, which the “family institution,” as he calls it, awarded him in 2003.
A Lander faculty member since 2006, he describes himself as “a lifetime sports fan. I played almost everything as a kid.”
The short list of people he finds most interesting includes baseball greats Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson.
He contemplated going into sports journalism or broadcasting before finding his niche as a sports historian.
It’s a field in which Witherspoon has excelled. He’s the author of more than a dozen articles, chapters and reviews on various sports history topics, and his book, “Before the Eyes of the World: Mexico and the 1968 Olympic Games,” won the 2009 North American Society for Sport History Book Award in sport history.
Witherspoon is the department’s go-to guy for American Sports History and other courses with a sports emphasis, but he also teaches everything from the American Revolution to The Cold War. The period of history he finds most interesting, he said, might be the years between World Wars I and II, an era he said was “as good as it gets in the 20s, and as bad as it gets in the 30s, with the Great Depression.”
He’s also fascinated by World War II, and the “all hands on deck” mentality that prevailed then. It was a time when Americans put aside their differences and worked together to defeat a fearful adversary, a time without the “gridlock and disagreement” that Witherspoon sees today.
Asked what he likes about teaching, Witherspoon said, “Teaching gives me an outlet to have a real impact on young people’s lives. It also allows me to celebrate and talk about many of the things I enjoy. Whether it’s sports history, pop culture, presidents and politics, or any number of other topics, I get to spend much of my life reading and teaching about my favorite things. How many people would love to have that opportunity?”
Witherspoon has had an impact on area teachers as well as the thousands of students he’s worked with over the years, as a result of the Teaching American History in the Lakelands program, a three-year effort to strengthen the history program in area primary and secondary schools. The program, funded by a $996,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education, came into being because of a grant proposal that Witherspoon wrote. He also served as the project’s executive historian and director.
A high point of Witherspoon’s career to date was the invitation he was recently extended by BBC Radio to discuss the controversial black power salutes of 60s-era Olympians John Carlos and Tommie Smith. Speaking on international radio, he said, “was quite an invigorating experience.”
Witherspoon said he has several long-term goals, in addition to providing a safe and happy life for his family and helping his children, Alexis and Andrew, to achieve their own goals.
“If I go to my grave and the epitaph reads that I helped others, or positively influenced those around me, I’ll be happy,” he said. “That might come in the form of teaching and advising students, or perhaps in another grant like the Teaching American History grant. I’ll become the Chair of the Department of History and Philosophy in the fall, so I will see what kinds of opportunities arise from that. I occasionally hear from people around the country and even the world who have read my book or an article I’ve written and found it helpful, so I certainly want to continue doing that.”
Associate Professor of History Dr. William Ramsey, outgoing chair of the Department of History and Philosophy, said that he and other members of the department nominated Witherspoon for Lander’s most prestigious teaching award because he is “a top-notch scholar with an award-winning book under his belt, an unfailingly personable and responsible colleague, and a caring mentor to his students, all rolled into one package. My hope is that this award will help spread the news that we have people of this caliber here at Lander.”