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Monday, August 27, 2018

Doctor Ferrell’s Favorite Student [M, 8-27-18]

Christ In Winter: Reflections on Faith & Life for the Years of Winter…  

Even when Helen and I talked about him in our kitchen, we hardly ever called him Bob, even though he told us to. It was always Dr. Ferrell.

Robert Hugh Ferrell died this month, at the age of 97. He was a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of history at Indiana University.

He was a scholar. Yes, appreciate the admirable David McCollough, but  Ferrell was the world’s foremost Truman scholar, and an excellent scholar of American history in general, especially presidential and diplomatic history, with a fondness for WWI, his father’s war.

He was a writer. He won awards not just for scholarship but for the writing he used in communicating that scholarship. His style was clear and plain and yet interesting and meaningful. He knew that the first job of an historian is to tell the story.

He was a teacher. He never felt that undergraduate teaching was beneath him, and he was always willing to find new ways to do it, including teaching in dormitories as well as class buildings.

That was the way daughter Katie met him, as he taught a class in the Collins Living-Learning Center, where she lived in the 1980s.

If you’ve read her novels, now under her married name of Kennedy, Learning to Swear in America and What Goes Up, [1] you’ll not be surprised to learn that she was an excellent writer when she started college. Well, way before college. I was the graduate assistant to James Spalding, the Director of The School of Religion at the U of Iowa when I did graduate work there, and so graded the papers in the undergraduate course he taught. As I did so, I thought, “Good grief, my 5th grade daughter writes better than any of these college students.”

Katie was in one of Dr. Ferrell’s classes at Collins. He was especially impressed with her writing skills. He asked her one day, “Where did you learn to write like this?” She replied, “From my father.” He said, “Well, where did he learn to write like this?” “From you,” she replied.

Understandably, she immediately became his all-time favorite student.

During that time, he taught a summer course at Eastern IL U, in Charleston, IL, where we lived, so Helen and I decided to audit his course. When he found out that we were Katie’s parents, he was delighted, and told the class all about Katie and how wonderful she was, both as a scholar and as a writer.

It was a class filled with students working on their master’s degrees. Apparently they got fed up with hearing about Katie, for when she was starting her PhD work at the U of IL in Champaign, and the new grad students introduced themselves at their orientation meeting, and she said, “I’m Katie McFarland,” a loud voice from the back of the room, in which she knew no one, yelled, “I hate you!” It was Bob Ubriaco, by then finished with his EIU master’s and enrolled for a doctorate at UIL. Bob had been in Dr. Ferrell’s summer class which had ostensibly been about Truman but was mostly about Katie.

Dr. Ferrell kept up with us through the years, until his wife died and he moved to MI to be near his daughter. While he was editing Scribner’s Dictionary of American History, he had me write the article on Protestantism, thinking that perhaps I could write as well as my daughter. That got me involved with Scribner’s, where I then got to write for others of their publications, like American Lives. I am so grateful to him for those opportunities. [2]

Especially when I was in treatment for cancer [3], he would come over to Arcola, IL to visit us, and give us an autographed copy of whichever book he had just finished. We would talk about everything. He even gave us advice, which we followed, on how to buy a car. Mostly, though, he wanted to talk about his all-time favorite student.  

I never told him that Katie was wrong when she said I learned to write from him. It was an understandable mistake. I had been a history major at IU in his early years there. She assumed he had been one of my professors, but I never had a course with Dr. Ferrell. [4]

Instead, I learned to write by not writing. When I told the District Superintendent that I was thinking about becoming a minister, he immediately, and I mean immediately, appointed me as the preacher in three little churches. [5] I was a full-time student and a part-time janitor as well. I had no time to write out sermons. So I did them in my head in the little interstices of time between classes and jobs. I had to learn to be clear and simple and still interesting and meaningful without putting anything down on paper. So when I wrote, it was the same way I preached. People who read my books say they can hear my voice. By learning how to preach, I learned how to write like Dr. Ferrell, or at least as close as I could come. Like an historian, the first job of a preacher is to tell the story.

Dr. Ferrell was not really churchly, but he was always rather proud of me for combining the roles of preacher and scholar and author. And, of course, father.

John Robert McFarland

1] Published by Bloomsbury Press, which also publishes lesser authors like JK Rowling, and available in hardback, paperback, electronic, and audio.

2] Thirty years after my student days, I did the research for my Western novel, An Ordinary Man [Harper-Collins] in the IU archives, using the tools I learned as a history student in what is now Rawles Hall but was then called the Social Science Building.

3] You can read more about this in NOW THAT I HAVE CANCER I AM WHOLE: Reflections on Life and Healing for Cancer Patients and Those Who Love Them. [AndrewsMcMeel]

4] I did not have a course as such with Dr. Ferrell because my only American history courses--other than the then brand new folklore courses of Richard Dorson--were the basic survey courses everyone took, and my sections were taught by doctoral student Jack Sosen. Many people belittle courses taught by graduate students, but Jack Sosen was a good teacher, and a good enough scholar that when he got his IU doctorate, Harvard called him to a professorship there.
All my other history courses were in ancient [John Snyder] or European [Leo Solt and Leonard Lundin, a kindly man we all hated because of his execrable map tests] or in the history of Christian thought [D.J. Bowden]. But all the profs lectured in our historiography classes, so I heard Dr. Ferrell there, and he was a subject of discussion among the tight-knit and gossipy undergrad history majors, because he was already known as a stickler for deep research and good writing, and for rubbing some of the older profs the wrong way.

5] You can read more about this in The Strange Calling [Smyth&Helwys]

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