In Memoriam

Jack Temple Kirby
Professor Emeritus of History

Jack Temple Kirby was a consummate historian, a dedicated teacher and a wonderful colleague whose life and career constituted a major contribution to the History Department, Miami University and the history of the United States. Jack joined the Miami faculty in 1965. For thirty-seven years, until his retirement in 2002, he inspired undergraduates; trained graduate students; served ably and regularly on departmental and University committees; and published seven highly-regarded books. He died of heart failure on August 6, 2009, in St. Augustine, Florida, where he had lived after he retired. Jack kept in touch with his colleagues after he left Oxford, corresponding regularly about topics ranging from his current reading to his perennial interest in the varieties of barbecue. Born in Portsmouth, Virginia, in 1938, Jack received his B.A. degree from Old Dominion University, where he was Adger Scholar, DuPont Fellow, and Phi Beta Kappa. He received his M.A. in 1964 and his Ph.D. in 1965 in History from the University of Virginia. He spent his entire academic career at Miami, rising from the rank of Assistant Professor to his appointment as the W.E. Smith Professor of History in 1988. He taught at all levels, dealing with first-year students in large introductory lecture courses, upper division students in smaller classes, and master’s and doctoral students in seminars. Over the course of his career, he mentored a good number of scholars, particularly in his role as editor of Studies in Rural Culture, a series published by the University of North Carolina Press, beginning in 1991.

A hallmark of Jack’s teaching, and indeed of his career as a whole, was a restless curiosity. Always fascinated by new ideas and new forms, Jack shared his enthusiasm for popular culture, especially movies, and environmental studies with his students long before most of his peers took them seriously. Characteristically, Jack was developing a course in World History in the years before his retirement. He was particularly delighted with the semester he spent in the spring of 1999 at the University of Genoa as a Fulbright Senior Lecturer.

A superb scholar, Jack focused on the history and culture of the American South from an astonishingly broad array of scholarly perspectives. His first book was Darkness at the Dawning: Race and Reform in the Progressivism South. Media-Made Dixie: The South in the American Imagination was more innovative and influential. The publication of Rural Worlds Lost: The American South, 1920-1960, which examined the major economic transformations occurring in the 20th century South, established Jack as a leading figure in agricultural and environmental history. His last two books were delightfully idiosyncratic, unique blends of scholarship, meditation and whimsy that read the way Jack talked. Poquosin: A Study of Rural Landscape and Society and then Mockingbird Song: Ecological Landscapes of the South were discursive, engaging, frustrating, charming, and always, always smart. We were all happy when Mockingbird Song won the Bancroft Prize, awarded by Columbia University for books of “exceptional merit” in American history, biography, or diplomacy. It was, the prize committee noted, “elegantly conceived and beautifully written.”

In his many years at Miami, Jack was a generous colleague and mentor, who also served his profession nationally and internationally. Jack received research grants from the American Philosophical Society, the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Virginia Historical Society. He served on the Board of Editors of the Journal of Southern History, and on the Editorial Advisory Board of the Virginia Magazine of History & Biography and Perspectives on the American South. Jack was a member of the Executive Council of the Southern Historical Association from 1999 to 2002 and served as President of the Agricultural History Society in 1995-1996.

He loved to tell stories, and we liked to listen to them. At lunch or dinner, or during a visit to his office, he would recount one tale after another, often based on the most recent work he was doing. Jack became a model senior colleague. Whether or not he welcomed change, he accepted both its ironic character and its inevitability. Rarely lamenting the passage of time (the past, he would say, was never as good or as bad as we remembered); he was most comfortable commenting from the sidelines on the folly of the human beings for whom he nevertheless usually had genuine affection.

At the time of his death, Jack was serving as President of the Southern Historical Association, an organization to which he had belonged for his entire professional life. His Presidential Address, entitled “ Genealogy, Genomics, Mystery, Mischief, and Southern Family Stories,” was read at the annual meeting in November after his death by his friend, Professor Barbara Field of Columbia University. At that meeting in Louisville, Kentucky, a host of former students, undergraduates and graduates, as well as former colleagues, paid tribute to Jack as their mentor as well as a major figure in the field. Jack’s career was recognized nationally by an obituary in the New York Times and in a remembrance by our former colleague Michael O’Brien of Cambridge University in the February 2010 issue of the Journal of Southern History. Jack’s Presidential Address was published in the same issue.

Jack left a powerful impact on us all, and not just on our institutional lives. He was a man of strong passions. First and foremost he loved his family — Ann, Valerie, Matt, Constance, his nieces and nephews, and with special delight his two precious grandchildren, Ella and Sophie. He loved the South and all things southern, down to the last gene in his genome. Here at Miami he bridged the divide between the North and South for generations of students and faculty. He drew many into the study of southern history and culture. At the same time he approached his work and life in Oxford as a bit of an expat, a southerner living on the “other side” of the Ohio River. Jack loved, hated, railed against, lived, breathed and devoted his life to the academy. We will always remember him sitting in the winged-back chair in the McNiff Room on the second floor of Upham Hall, countering an argument, telling a story, working in his own way to make things right in the Department, the University, the profession. Finally, Jack Temple Kirby loved life itself: good bourbon, the occasional smoke, the mockingbird, the land, the marsh, the sea. We miss him, as Jack would say, sorely.

Respectfully submitted by the Memorial Committee from the Department of History: Mary E. Frederickson, Andrew Cayton and Allan M. Winkler