The Secret Lives of our Profs

Rachel Young

Young: How did you get interested in history?Podair: Well, I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t just interested in American history, but obsessed with American history. When I was five or six years old, my parents got me a children’s dictionary, and the dictionary part was fine, but what fascinated me was the list of facts about the United States in the back, especially the presidents. By the time I was seven years old, I had memorized all the presidents, and not just that, their dates of birth as well. I could probably still tell you that James A. Garfield was born in 1820 and died in 1881. I could sort of just rattle that stuff off, so I knew all the presidents, all of their dates of elections, I could list the vice presidents, and I was doing this at a very early age, and I was just always obsessed with the American past, and the stories that came out of the American past. I had my parents taking me to civil war battlefields when I was very young, all up and down the east. Since we were from New York and we didn’t have a car, and neither of my parents drove, we did this all by trains and buses, and so I did all of those things, and then I started to read American history. The first book that I remember reading and saying “I want to be like this guy, I want to write history myself,” was when I was 11 or 12, I picked up a book called A Night to Remember by Walter Lord, which was the story of the sinking of the Titanic, an eyewitness account. It was this great, sweeping, dramatic narrative of the ship sinking, and I remember reading that book over and over again and saying “this is what I want to do, I want to write stories like that”, and that got me started. A great aside on that is that I’ve been interested in the Titanic and that book my whole life, and a couple of months ago, out of nowhere, I was offered the chance to write the introduction to a reissued version of A Night to Remember, which is a great thrill for me. It was the kind of thing that you can say “life is good” when it really comes full circle that way, and be able to write that. I had more fun writing that that I have anything else.

Young: You’re from Bronx, New York, originally. How did you wind up here in Appleton?

I continued to read American history and continued to go to museums and historical sites all the way through college, but I never thought that you could actually earn a living being a historian, so when I was in college at New York University in the Bronx, I decided to do something practical, which was not major in history, but to major in political science and go to law school because my parents were from the Depression generation and were very oriented towards earning a living and having security and stability. The encouraged me to do that, but in college I always took history courses as a hobby. Anyway, I graduated from NYU and went to law school at Columbia, and graduated, and just went out into the world of the practice of law, which I did for 11 years. I worked for a Wall Street law firm and I later worked for a bank, but all during that time my main interest, real interest was history, and even the people who worked with me could tell that that was my real interest. It was my hobby! One day [though] I had this epiphany; I went to a legal conference, and a paralegal from my law firm went along with me. The two of us had to go and take notes and ask questions and report back to the firm, and during the question and answer session I raised a question that had nothing to do with law, but actually had to do with history, and the lawyer who was doing the presentation just gave me this look like I was out of my mind, so, as we were walking away and leaving the seminar, the paralegal turns to me and says “Jerry, why don’t you go to graduate school and just get it over with”? And I realized that I probably should! So, I applied to graduate school, and I was very fortunate that I have a very understanding and supportive wife. Karen, my wife, understood that this was something that I really badly wanted to do, and had I not been serious about it, she wouldn’t have said okay, but I’m very lucky that she said okay. It helps so much to have a supportive spouse while in grad school, there’s no way I could have done it without her supporting me. I ended up going to graduate school at Princeton. My advisor there was James McPherson, the most eminent civil war historian in the country, and one day before one of his lectures, I was sitting in the lecture hall waiting for the students to come in, and he motioned me up to the lectern. He said “Jerry, I just got this letter from a place called Lawrence University, and they’re looking for a 20th century American historian, which is what you do, and so, you probably should apply for this job”, and here I am! Before coming here, I had never been outside the New York area for more than two weeks.

Young: What is your favorite period in history?

Podair: My favorite period is the 1960’s. I’m always telling my students, if you want to know how this started, and “this” could be how you dress, what you’re listening to, how you spend your leisure time, even the fact that women are in college at all in such great numbers, to a large extent you always have to go back to the 1960’s, because that’s really where American culture changed. I always say that the most important political decade is the 1930’s, and in many ways, we are still arguing over the legacy of the New Deal and the role of government in our lives, we’re arguing about it this very day with the new healthcare bill, but I [still] always say that the most important cultural decade is the 1960’s because that’s the decade where established authority gets challenged, it’s almost like the flowering of a new American enlightenment, where Americans get to make these basic choices about the direction of their lives on their own, for themselves.

Young: Recently we’ve seen a big political shift in American with the new President. In 50 or 100 years, how do you think people, historians are going to regard this period in American history?

Podair: That’s always a great question, and I think historians, although trained to look at the past, always have that in the back of their minds. Of course, it’s impossible to tell with certainty because, another thing that I’m always telling my students is that history is about contingency. Things could go in one of many different directions-at almost every turn, events could have gone in a different direction, and changed history in basic ways. We can’t tell right now what the next 50 to 100 years, or even the next 5 years will look like. In other words, on January 1st, 2001, who could have predicted what happened on September 11th, 2001, and changed the direction of history? As for today, it could go in a number of directions. The Obama moment could just be a moment, a liberal moment or a liberal left moment made possible by the failures of the Bush administration, so it could just be a moment, just as the Roosevelt administration could have been a moment made possible by the failures of the Hoover administration. On the other hand, we know that the Roosevelt moment was not a moment, but an era, an epic, basically, that lasted at least 50 years, and in many ways still has tremendous influence, and that could be Obama as well.

Young: Who is your favorite President and why?

Podair: My favorite president is Lincoln. No surprise there, and I’m obviously not alone. [He is my favorite] for his ability to grow and change, for his ability to be flexible, for his ability not to personalize disputes, which is something that many of our more recent presidents have fallen prey to. Lincoln never took it personally. He had people in his cabinet that he didn’t trust and shouldn’t have trusted, but he remained with them because he felt it was for the best. He was a pragmatic idealist, someone who hoped for the best, but who understood the frailty and the flaws of human beings sometimes at their
worst, and realized he couldn’t change that. Instead of becoming cynical, he still had the goals and qualities of freedom that he held to.

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