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History Grads Pay Tribute to Charles Roland

by Graham Shelby

A professor can never really predict how much influence he will have on his students. Take University of Kentucky graduates John David Smith and Thomas Appleton, for example. Both attest to the "positive and enriching" influence of a history professor they had at UK, and the two have now organized a tribute for their mentor.

Smith and Appleton recently edited A Mythic Land Apart: Reassessing Southerners and Their History, a book of essays written by proteges of retired University of Kentucky history professor Charles Roland. Seven of the nine contributors studied under Roland during his tenure at UK from 1970-1988.

Smith remembers Roland as a top-notch teacher who was demanding and meticulous. "When I was a graduate student here, Dr. Roland made me rewrite the first chapter of my dissertation six times," Smith says. "He had extremely high standards of exposition."

Smith, a history professor at North Carolina State University, says having to work up to such exacting standards made him a better scholar. Roland, he says, was tough, but fair and has maintained ties with a number of his former students. "Tom Appleton and I wanted to do it because of our affection for Roland," Smith says. Because of his intimate knowledge of Roland's high expectations for writing, Smith "wanted to be sure this book was as well written as it could be."

The essays, while scholarly in nature, are generally written in straight, clear, readable prose. Appleton says they made a deliberate effort to make a book that would be readable outside the community of professional historians.

Appleton, who is publications editor for the Kentucky Historical Society and an adjunct history professor at UK, says when he first studied under Roland, "I questioned whether I could cut it or not." But, Appleton says, Roland was a great mentor. Appleton and Smith solicited papers from Roland's former students, and from the responses selected the nine original essays that appear in the book.

Both Smith and Appleton pointed to Carol Reardon's essay, "Robert E. Lee's Military Legacy," as one of the book's most noteworthy, partly because it refers directly to some of Roland's scholarship. Reardon, now a history professor at Penn State University, says, "Charlie is one of the biggest names in Civil War history. To be a Roland student is something special." She says while he was exacting, he could be engaging as well.

Likening his lecture style to that of a southern preacher, Reardon said, "he could hold a large lecture class absolutely spellbound." Reardon, who, like Roland, has done extensive work with military history, says she was glad to contribute to the book. "I would've been really upset if I couldn't have been a part of it."

Roland says that when he heard about the book, "I was highly pleased and gratified." He chuckled when he heard about his students' referring to his demanding nature as an instructor. What he was doing, he said, was trying to get them to perform to their potential. "I needed to induce, cajole, agitate, or, if necessary, force them to come up to the level of their own capacity."

He said when it came to his graduate students, he wanted to push them to find and develop their own voices intellectually. "I took the attitude that I was not going to try to force them into any mold. I didn't have to agree with them in order to direct them. They could reach their own conclusions," he says.

One of the conclusions Roland's students seem to have reached is that they wanted to pay tribute to their exacting mentor, as Reardon says, "This was a labor of love for all of us."