Monday, November 2, 2015
CECIL B. CURREY
It's sad when a person who had an impact on you passes and for some reason their death slides by unnoticed. While looking up materials recently I came across a 2013 obituary for Professor Cecil B. Currey. Primarily a military historian, his dissertation and first book claimed Benjamin Franklin was British spy. Blasphemy, so many said! He later wrote a book about military command in Vietnam that should have been better received, but he was attacked because he never served actively there, apparently staying stateside as a chaplain and later as a reserve officer, and his publisher convinced him to put it out anonymously (though his name was quickly revealed). He later published some well-received and even acclaimed biographies of Vo Nguyen Giap and Edward Lansdale. He was my very first professor in a graduate-level master's class and I ended up not liking him much, though he taught me a good life lesson. My class with him was supposed to be a seminar on colonial American history, but I was disappointed its only focus was Salem witchcraft (allegedly because he was considering a similar project). We were supposed to write a paper, read and critique our fellows. When delivering our summaries, I was amazed by universal mimicry, restating positions Currey opined in class which was basically that everyone in colonial Massachusetts was caught up and no one challenged. Several papers I simply hated (and pointed out my objections), though they seemed to receive soft, even enthusiastic, praise from him. Foolish me, I decided to concentrate on those who actively opposed both accusers and their supporters. I paid a high price for my contrarianism. He was so easy on most presenters, until I got my turn. He scowled and criticized my effort, and threw my paper at me in front of everyone. It was covered in so much red ink I thought it was bleeding (I still have it somewhere). No grade marked on it. "See me after class." Several of my classmates were as stunned, all of them claiming that they liked my paper best of all. I later sat in his office, practically quaking. This had never happened to me before. Ever. He told me that my paper was "horribly written, not graduate-level work" but he would generously let me rewrite. His main objection, my overuse of "the" in it. I went home shaken and determined to quit graduate school. Nevertheless I rewrote it, mostly cleansing aforementioned miscues but without changing any of my conclusions or research. If I remember correctly after all these years (33 years), I was stunned when I received my grade, an "A". When I saw him next and asked why he had raked me over coals, he looked at me and said, "You did good research, and were willing to challenge me, but I didn't get the feeling you were taking it seriously enough. I expect much better effort from you. I think you have the ability to do well." I decided to stay and earned my MA at USF, but ever since that day I have often been accused by some professors as curiously avoiding using "the" in my work. :) I don't know if he mellowed, but others liked him, and he had a long career at South Florida, earning emeritus status a few years ago. I avoided him religiously thereafter, though. Perhaps I should have gotten to know him better, but I wasn't much on military history and I was more enamored with Depression Era history. Luckily I later had a wonderful professor of Colonial history at South Carolina, my guardian angel Jessica Kross, who rekindled my interest in early American history as one of my doctoral fields. My belated condolences to his family and students.