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Jay Baird, ‘passionate’ historian, named Effective Educator

By Brooke Heiser

"Clinton always says he’s the link to the 21st century; I’m their link to the past." This is how Jay Baird, Miami’s newest Effective Educator, describes the role he plays for his students.

"I don’t live in the future," Baird says. "I am much more at home in the past." That seems appropriate since Baird is a history professor, having taught at Miami since 1967.

One of many current and former students who have noted Baird’s passion at the head of the class is Jim Schul ’96 MEd ’00, who now teaches history himself in high school.

In a nomination letter of his "role model," Schul wrote, "Dr. Baird challenged me. I knew that I was doing work worth doing when he assigned something for me. However, Dr. Baird also cared for me. He took time to talk with me. He helped me to become not only a better student, but a better man. Dr. Baird taught me what a true scholar is. It should be required that all Miami students pass through one of Jay Baird’s classes."

His classes include an honors seminar on the Holocaust and a 400-level class that focuses on Hitler’s rise to power and eventual fall.

During a conversation about Jay Baird, the word "passion" eventually pops up. Even after all these years, he demonstrates a noticeable enthusiasm for his "calling." Part of his explanation for that continued enthusiasm is that he lived during the era he talks about.

Growing up in Toledo during World War II, he was raised by his mother while his surgeon father served with a MASH unit in the Philippines and New Guinea. Across the street from his home stood a "huge Catholic establishment," Gesu, with cloistered nuns and Jesuit priests. This boy’s imagination took over and his street became a huge medieval estate.

"I substituted historic imagination for football, baseball and basketball."

Although a Protestant, Baird walked across Parkside Boulevard, lined with hundreds of buckeye trees, to attend special masses held when the bodies of the town’s young men were returned from the battlefields. He still remembers watching the caissons carrying the caskets roll through the gates.

More pleasant childhood memories include attending the Toledo Symphony with his mother introducing him to the "classics." His father, a Southerner and an amateur historian, often read to him about the generals of the Confederacy.

Author of several books himself, including a new one, The Third Reich and the German Democratic Republic, his favorite remains To Die for Germany because it stems from his childhood.
"I honestly think it reflects a life experience," Baird says. "That is where I began, during World War II."

And stayed?

"My world stopped in 1945. I am very interested in anti-Semitism, how that has developed and how we can’t have that run away again." He cites instances in Germany today where people are murdered for their race and color. He fears that this is the beginning of a "serious, almost murderous, neo-nazism in the East."

Baird discovered his passion for German history while an undergraduate at Denison University where he studied German literature and received a fellowship to study modern European history in Berlin. He went on to earn a doctorate at Columbia and then teach a couple of years each at Stanford and Pomona College.

However, the Midwest called him back. Yes, he loves the opera in New York, and he thoroughly enjoys Munich and Berlin, but his home is here.

Reminiscing about his career, he sits in his book-lined office located on the second floor of Upham Hall directly over the arch. A recruitment poster for the British Navy in World War II is to the right of the window that looks out over the heart of the academic campus toward Stoddard and Elliott halls. On the left side of the window is his Benjamin Harrison Medallion, which he received from the university in 1998 for "outstanding national contributions to education." Now he’ll have to make room for his Effective Educator Award after Homecoming Weekend.

Established by the Alumni Association in 1983 to honor faculty and staff who have positively influenced students beyond their years at Miami, this year’s nominations came from the class of 1996.

After 33 years at Miami, Baird feels he knows what students want, and he does his best to deliver.

"I think they are absolutely dying for intellectual leadership," he explains. "The only thing they can’t stand is mediocrity…and snobbery or hiding behind your title."

Every year he takes his class to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. For some of his students, this is their first real exposure to World War II’s genocide. Despite the pain it causes, this is one of many lessons he feels he must share.

"We’ve seen what goes on in Yugoslavia, and we know about the mass murders in Cambodia. The 20th century was a century of genocide. You can never lose sight of the human tragedy."

Remarkably, through all this, Baird remains upbeat.

"The bottom line of why I think I have been so happy here is I love the landscape. In a way, I never grew up. There is an enthusiasm that never died out. In the long run, what students remember and why they love it is they get a traditional lecture that draws on the classics …with an unvarnished view of the world."

Heiser is a graduate assistant to Miamian, the alumni magazine.

Date Published: 10/05/2000
Volume: 20   Number: 10

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