A Tribute to Russel B. Nye (1913-1993)

Dale M. Herder

A few weeks ago, we asked for your submissions to a handful of new series that the National Association of Scholars is seeking to publish. These series seek to create more engagement among our members by sharing anecdotes, advice, and narratives to entertain and enlighten our community. For those of you whom that email has passed by, you can find more information by clicking here. We will continue to share these stories, perhaps once every other week for the foreseeable future, and will likely include more than one submission. 

Today we are sharing a submission for our Doktorvater series. In it, Dr. Dale Herder shares the story of a professor who helped shape his intellectual journey.

Great teachers do more than teach; they inspire and they make connections.

They inspire their students because they are superior role models in their public and private lives, because they care about the success of their students as individuals, and because they are infectious in their love of ideas. The best teachers also help their students make CONNECTIONS between ideas, places, and things. Connections are the keys to understanding, and understanding is the key to learning.

Most of us are fortunate enough to encounter such teachers only once or twice in our lives, and then we move on. We seldom go back and say thank you.

It has been my good fortune to stay close to such a teacher for thirty years, until his death last week. He was Professor Russel B. Nye, Distinguished Professor of English, at Michigan State University. Retired eight years ago, and felled by a stroke, Professor Nye lived on Oxford Street in East Lansing with his wife, Kay, who taught French for many years until her retirement.

Professor Nye taught me, as a student of history many years ago, about the connections between ideas and connections in our national experience. He instilled in me, through his teaching and his manners, an appreciation for the cultural roots we all share with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Chief Sitting Bull, Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, Clare Booth Luce, Duke Ellington, Martin Luther King, and Cesar Chavez. He also instilled in me an understanding of what it means to be a democrat in a republican form of government—a government built on the ideas of the Enlightenment and courage of men and women who died to establish the freedom we now take for granted as if it were permanent and secure.

I met Dr. Nye for the first time in 1962 during a trip to MSU at the invitation of its Honors College. As a young man just finishing two years at a community college, I was in search of the History Department into which I was considering transfer. After peering into office after office on the wrong floor of the right building, I was greeted by a gentleman who stepped into the hallways and said, “You look as if you are lost. Can I help you?” Little did I know that this was Professor Russel B. Nye, recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, author of twenty books and hundreds of articles, and world-renowned scholar in American intellectual history and literature.

Over the years I took many of Professor Nye’s courses, and he eventually became the director of my Doctoral Dissertation Committee in the English Department. In the German university tradition the name of one’s Doctoral Dissertation Director is “Vater-Doktor,” or, in English, “Father-Doctor.” Professor Nye is certainly Vater-Doktor to me—my intellectual father. He inspired hundreds of us, his former students, to seek to achieve his integrity, selflessness, and a love of wisdom.

While visiting with Professor and Mrs. Nye some time ago in their East Lansing living room, he told me of some personal connections to our historical past that he had never before shared in his courses or our discussions and correspondence. These connections, I suspect, are part of what led him to become a teacher.

Like James Michener and many other Americans who achieved some part of the American Dream, Russel Nye was orphaned at an early age. His mother died when he was two, and his father died when he was nine. He was close to his Grandfather and Grandmother Nye in Viola, Wisconsin, and he went to live with them. His grandfather died only a few weeks later, and his grandmother passed away approximately a year after that. Ten years old and alone again, he went to live with an aunt and uncle in Viroqua, Wisconsin, some fifteen miles away. He graduated from Viroqua High School as captain of the football team in 1930, a year after the stock market crash.

His boyhood during World War I and through the 1920s was memorable for the powerful political, social, military and economic forces that swirled around him. He spoke enthusiastically and wrote much about the rise of the Progressives and the LaFollette family in Wisconsin, and their influence on Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal after the Depression. And he remembered boyhood parades which included not only hundreds of World War I veterans but also many Spanish-American War and a few remaining Civil War veterans. His own father was wounded in the arm during combat in Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War, and Professor Nye pointed out that one of the earliest forms of the G.I. Bill was responsible for this father going to dental school after his release from military service.

Professor Nye recalled his excitement when he attended the last parade of the Grand Army of the Republic in Madison, Wisconsin. He hurried to the end of the parade in order to speak with a black soldier who had lost both legs during the Civil War, and who had been pulled by comrades in a coaster wagon in that last parade of General Grant’s G.A.R. The black veteran was from Louisiana, and told young Nye that he had lost his legs in the battle at Petersburg, Virginia. During that battle a brigade of Yankee soldiers from Pennsylvania put their coal mining experience to work and dug a tunnel from their position to the rebel soldiers’ line of defense. At that point they extended their tunnel in the shape of a “T,” and planted dynamite charges directly under the rebel soldiers’ line. After detonating the dynamite in the tunnel, the black soldier and Union comrades ran down into the newly blasted crater to finish off the Confederates who were wounded and dazed by the explosion. To their dismay, another unit of Confederates appeared at the rim of the crater, and the Yankees were picked off like fish in a barrel.

Men such as the legless veteran were living portraits. Professor Nye remembered them whenever he saw one of Matthew Brady’s incredible photographs of Civil War Battlefields. At the mention of Matthew Brady Professor Nye instinctively gave a mini-lecture about the enormous impact of the camera on history—pointing out that mankind has become able only recently to recall and pass on precise images of events from the past.

Dr. Nye also shared stories told to him by his grandfather about the old man’s experiences as a Civil War soldier in Wisconsin’s Iron Brigade. Grandfather Nye fought in the Battle of Franklin (Tennessee). Six generals were killed at Franklin—three from the Union and three from the Confederacy. Nye’s grandfather said he survived the Civil War by keeping his head cool and moist, and his feet warm and dry. He learned from the other soldiers to use weeds as a liner for his Union cap; they provided moistness and coolness.

For Professor Nye, as an historian and as a grandson who had deep and tender memories of his Union soldier-grandfather, the Civil War was still alive and frightening. Friends of his grandfather died of wounds, dysentery, and infection to maintain the Union and free the slaves, and he felt somehow close to those fallen men whose lives had not been lost in vain.

Dr. Nye could still, in his mind’s eye, see his grandfather planting potatoes in the garden in Viola, Wisconsin, wearing the same black cap that he wore all his life as a symbol of having served in General Grant’s Grand Army of the Republic. Grandfather often sang the songs of the Civil War, and Professor Nye quoted the lyrics, “The Union forever, hurrah, boys, hurrah…,” “Tenting tonight, tenting tonight, tenting on the old campground…,” and, in response to the President’s call to the northern states for troops, “We are coming Father Abraham, 30,000 strong…”

His grandfather told him of a two-day trip he took on horseback to Galena, Illinois, in 1856, to hear Mr. Lincoln debate Mr. Douglas. Grandfather’s eye-witness description of Lincoln had him standing very tall, and “not likely to win any contest for handsomeness.” Lincoln was described by Professor Nye’s grandfather as having a clear, loud voice that could be heard well over the great distance to the back of the crowd. Grandfather Nye described Stephen A. Douglas as very short, and a superb speaker. Grandfather was deeply affected by the experience of being in the crowd that day, and spoke often of it, telling his grandson that Mr. Lincoln had clearly gotten the best of Mr. Douglas in the debate.

Grandmother Nye told young Russel of how she stood, as a young girl living in Rockford, Illinois, in 1865, and waved with tears in her eyes as the Lincoln funeral train passed by, every car draped in black, on its sad passage from Washington to Springfield, Illinois. Grandmother also passed along stories told to her by her grandmother many years before. Great-great grandmother Tyler told about her girlhood memories of seeing the Redcoats on the streets of her hometown, Dempster, in upstate New York, and of the loss of family members to Indians in raids on the whites by the Mohawks. Great-great grandmother Tyler also passed along to Nye’s grandmother a story about how she mischievously pulled the scalplock of an Indian man in her father’s store when she was a little girl. He became angry, and picked her up and sat her down in the rain outside the store.

Professor Nye’s grandmother recalled serving food to Ulysses Grant on more than one occasion before the Civil War when she stayed at an inn where she waited tables in Illinois. Grant’s father owned a tannery, and they came west to Illinois on hide-buying trips, stopping for rest and food at the Inn not far from Galena. Grandmother Nye also told young Russel of the pain she felt when she received word that one of her sons, Jim Nye, had been killed and scalped by Indians in Colorado. He was a telegraph operator for the Union Pacific Railroad, and grandmother received word by telegraph from the company that she and grandfather should make plans to meet their son’s body, which was being shipped home.

The stories related by Professor Nye remind us that we do not often enough celebrate the importance of inspirational teaching and our connections with our historical roots. Our society tends to hurry us too fast down the pathway of life, and fling us outward rapidly from the center of our existence in random trajectories leading to disintegration and disconnectedness. Our continuous activity, and the very pace of life itself, seem to pull us in every direction but toward humane values and coherence. We ought to more often go back and say “thank you” to the teachers who inspired us and marked our lives irrevocably for the better. And we ought to more often seek out those stories that will enrich our appreciation for the men and women upon whose shoulders we now stand.

A series of tragic events shortly after the turn of this century resulted in a young boy named Russel Blaine Nye becoming an orphan not once but twice by the time he was ten years old. This, in turn, resulted in time “skipping a beat,” and bypassing one entire generation when his grandparents became his most potent role models and transmitters of values and culture. The consequence for me, and for other students of Professor Nye, is that we have been taught, and continue to be taught, by an unusually civilized and sensitive man who brought us one step closer to the reality of the past.

When I visited Professor Nye and shook his hand, I became one more link in the human chain of history. When I touched his hand and mind and heart I touched the hands and minds and hearts of the men and women who connect us directly to the Mohawks, the Redcoats, Abraham Lincoln, Stephen A. Douglas, and the black and white soldiers who gave their limbs and lives in the crater at Petersburg.

Thank you, Professor Nye, and thank you to all the teachers like you. In our frenetic lives we may not write or stop to visit often enough. But be assured that we think about you more often than you may know; we appreciate more than you can ever know, your inspiration, the connections you help us make with new and old ideas, and the mark you continue to make upon our lives.

Editor’s Note: this article was originally published by the MSU Alumni Magazine in the Winter 1994 edition.

The National Association of Scholars brings you contributions from our members in this new weekly newsletter, bringing you stories and advice that give perspective on the world of higher education. 

Photo by Leigh Trail by Adobe Stock

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