Fame has eluded me until relatively late in life, but that is about to change, and I wanted my loyal readers to be the first to know.
There have been some near misses, times when I suspected that popular acclaim was going to elevate me to stardom, despite my shy and humble nature. There was the time, at age five, that I appeared on the children’s show “Fun Time with Miss Marsha.” A decade later I was front man for my church youth ensemble as we performed for a March of Dimes telethon. My mom bragged about that for years.
But the closest call was actually after I began teaching, back in 1991 when a retired humanities professor from the University of Florida popularized the theory that Zachary Taylor, not Abraham Lincoln, had been the first American president to be assassinated. Taylor had died in July 1850, sixteen months into his presidency. The cause, according to most historians, was acute gastroenteritis brought on when Taylor gorged himself on raw cherries and iced milk during a Fourth of July celebration in the nation’s capital. Not so, said Professor Clara Rising, who speculated that the twelfth president had in fact been poisoned by one of his political enemies. Although she had no real evidence to support her suspicions, Rising convinced Taylor’s descendants to agree to an exhumation of their ancestor’s remains, and for a week or so that June the nation breathlessly awaited the results of the partial autopsy.
Within hours of the announcement of the impending autopsy, a TV journalist from a popular Seattle news magazine program was calling to say that he would like to interview me to get my take on the story. He wanted me to speak about the implications of Taylor’s alleged assassination, how it changed the course of history, etc. I cleaned up my office (no small feat), put on a tie, and in a lengthy interview I shared a plethora of erudite insights about Zachary Taylor, antebellum American politics, and the coming of the Civil War. I could tell that the reporter was deeply moved, although he was too professional to let on.
And then the results of the autopsy were announced the next morning, and unfortunately (at least for my television career), there was no evidence of foul play. I never talked to the reporter again. All I got was a telephone message left while I was in class. One of the secretaries in the History Department office had summarized the message on one of those pink “while you were out” slips that functioned as voice mail before there was voice mail. “Taylor wasn’t poisoned, so no story,” said the memo. “Thanks anyway.” Such is the fickleness of fame.
Now, twenty-five years later, the siren song of celebrity calls for me again. This was the scene last December in my U. S. History to 1865 class at Wheaton. C-SPAN was there to film a class session for later broadcast on their wildly popular “American History TV” (which probably all of us watch religiously on C-SPAN-3 every Saturday night). Although the lights, cameras, microphones, and miles of cable were hardly unobtrusive, my students were real troopers. They stayed awake at all times, looked variously intrigued and enthusiastic, and interjected with thoughtful, penetrating comments at the proper moments. It was a bravura performance.
A little behind-the-curtain confession: we had actually practiced all of this in advance. Although I chickened out at the last moment, I had even scripted an “impromptu” comment from one of the students who would interrupt me at the beginning of the class session with the following heart-felt observation:
Before we get started, may I share something?
As I was walking across the beautiful grounds of Wheaton College this morning, I was reminded of how greatly I have been blessed by the opportunity to be a history major here. I can say without hesitation that it has been a transformative experience. Indeed, words cannot express the depth of my gratitude to the Wheaton History Department. You and your colleagues have changed my life forever. If I were a parent of a high-school senior, I know that I would be encouraging him or her to apply to Wheaton College and become a history major.
In conclusion, if it will not embarrass you unduly, Professor McKenzie, I must say that your brilliant lectures, your unparalleled sense of humor, your remarkable wisdom, and your gracious, winsome spirit have been the pinnacle of my experience here at Wheaton College.
Thank you, thank you, a thousand times thank you.
I’m pretty sure he could have made it sound unrehearsed. My students make comments like this all the time.
At any rate, I have purposely refrained from telling you about the scheduled broadcast, for fear that C-SPAN would go bankrupt or that the producer would watch the tape and say “What was I thinking?!” Neither has happened, however, and I can now report that our class session on “Emancipation and the Civil War” will air this Saturday night at 8:00 (eastern) on C-SPAN 3. If your cable plan doesn’t include C-SPAN 3, you can watch the video after the fact from the “American History TV” website by clicking here.