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Bonnie Brown: Q&A with Professor Emeritus of History, Sheila Skemp

*Editor’s Note: The latest installment in the Ole Miss Retirees features is Sheila Skemp, Professor Emeritus of History. The organization’s mission is to enable all of the university’s faculty and staff retirees to maintain and promote a close association with the university. It is the goal of the Ole Miss Faculty/Staff Retirees Association to maintain communication by providing opportunities to attend and participate in events and presentations.

Dr. Sheila Skemp. All photos provided.

Dr. Skemp is a well-respected historian and has authored many books that have brought historical figures to life. In looking back over several positive student reviews of her classes, one said “Good professor—knew her stuff.” And that’s a terrific testimonial for any teacher. She is an interesting lady who has a great Ole Miss story.

Brown: Where did you grow up? Describe your home town and what was special about it.

Skemp: We moved around a lot. Our family lived in various towns in Montana until I was 9-years-old. Then we moved to the Chicago area where we lived in a number of suburbs. Most of those years were in Maywood, a suburb about 10 miles west of the Loop. I got a good education there, made friends, some of whom I am still in regular contact with even today. It was an easy place to live. Not exciting, but pleasant enough. It was an ethnically/racially diverse town, not so unusual in today’s world, but certainly unusual at the time.

Brown: Please talk about your childhood, parents, and siblings.

Skemp: I led a life that was typical of children growing up in the 1950s. My mother had a college degree, but once she was married, figured her “job” was to stay at home and take care of the kids and the house. As a result, my father had two jobs. He taught school in the daytime and worked at the post office sorting mail at night. (Teachers’ salaries were no better then than they are today!) As a result, I never knew my father very well. My horizons were very limited and I led a sheltered life. I paid little attention to the news or national affairs until I entered high school. I think the same can be said for my two brothers. My brother, Doug, who is five years younger than me was a lawyer and then a municipal judge in Dallas, Texas. He just retired this year. My other brother, Jeff, is 13 years younger than I am. He works as a cab dispatcher in Forest Park, Illinois. We were all held to high standards, studied hard, were active members of Scouts. We went to church regularly. Most of my relatives lived in Montana, where my mom grew up. So I saw them only in the summertime when we visited my grandfather on his farm. There we had more freedom, did a few unspeakably stupid things which we somehow survived, and had a great time.

Brown: What’s your earliest memory?

Skemp: I broke my collar bone when I was just two years old. We were driving in an unfamiliar town, my father didn’t see a stoplight as quickly as he should have, and he slammed on the brakes. These were the days before car seats even existed. I was in the back seat, fell, and ended up with my first (but not my last, alas) broken bone. I remember the whole thing clearly, in Technicolor! It obviously made an impact.

Brown: Where did you go to school?

Skemp: I attended a number of elementary schools: Missoula, Montana, Park City, Montana, and schools in Bellwood, Broadview, and Maywood, Illinois. My first year in high school was in Glenbard, Illinois. My last three years were in Maywood, at Proviso East High School. There I received what I now realize was an excellent education. The school was composed of about 5,000 students. It offered a wide variety of courses, taught by very well qualified instructors. All Proviso teachers had to have a master’s degree in their subject area. A few had Ph.Ds. I did my undergraduate work at the University of Montana where I spent four of the most wonderful years of my life. Academically and socially it was the perfect fit for me. Because that experience meant so much to me, I was thrilled to be named a “Distinguished Alumni” of the University in 2018. It was no doubt the most meaningful honor I have ever received. I did my graduate work at the University of Iowa. I had more fun there than I probably should have, but managed to attain my Ph.D. in 1974.

Brown: What subjects were hardest for you in school?

Skemp: Such an easy question to answer. Math! I recently saw a copy of my first-grade report card. My teacher wrote at the bottom of the card, “Sheila reads very well, she needs help with her numbers, and she is very, very messy.” Alas, nothing has changed! In my entire academic career, I received only one “D” in any subject: high school algebra. That was a gift. I’m sure the teacher figured holding me back was simply useless. He knew I would never get it!

Brown: Tell us how/when your Ole Miss “story” began? Who hired you? How long did you work at Ole Miss?

Skemp: I was hired by the History Department at the University in 1980, and taught there until I retired in 2014. My interview was quite thorough. I met with the Associate Vice Chancellor (Dr. Gerald Walton) and the Graduate Dean (Dr. Leland Fox), as well as with all members of the history department. I was wined and dined in excellent fashion, and gave a talk on my research. The interview, believe it or not, was actually quite pleasurable. I loved the members of the department. They seemed very cosmopolitan and exhibited staunch liberal leanings. As someone who still equated the University of Mississippi with the Meredith debacle, I came away reassured. This was a job I truly wanted to have.

The year that I received my Ph.D. in history was, unfortunately, the year that the job market simply fell apart for historians. I was lucky enough, bouncing around, getting one-year teaching jobs at a number of institutions in Wisconsin, Connecticut, Nebraska, and Iowa, and from time to time getting jobs as a clerk-typist at the University of Iowa, or as a desk clerk at Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge in Danbury, Connecticut. On occasion, food stamps and unemployment checks were godsends. So getting a tenure track job made me very happy indeed. So many of my cohorts never managed to get an academic position, so I feel fortunate to have landed on my feet.

Brown: What did you know about Ole Miss before you accepted a position here?

Skemp: Like most people of my generation, what I knew about the University of Mississippi was not especially flattering. Mainly I knew about James Meredith’s struggle to attend the University. I also knew about Freedom Summer, the Neshoba County murders, etc. Obviously, I came to the University with some misgivings, even though the history faculty with whom I interacted in my job interview indicated that things had changed quite a bit since the bad old days. Still, I was nervous. When I actually got here, I felt as though I was in a bit of a time warp. Women students wore gobs of makeup and perfume, cute little skirts and blouses. Attitudes toward gender issues were a bit behind the times, to put it mildly. I’ve seen a great deal of progress at the University, especially in the last few years. Nice to know that improvement is possible.

Brown: How did you and your husband meet?

Skemp: I met my husband, Murphy Richardson, in graduate school. He was also working on his Ph.D. in history. When his advisor contracted MS and retired prematurely, Murphy decided to be content with his ABD (all but dissertation). We agreed that given the job market at the time, the possibility that we would both get jobs at the college/university level seemed problematic at best. He said that he would go with me wherever I ended up. I’m not sure he thought that place would be Mississippi! He taught at both the University and Northwest Community College before retiring.

Brown: I know you have written quite a bit about Ben Franklin and his son, William. Why did you choose Ben Franklin to write about?

Skemp: I was searching for a topic—I needed a book to get tenure, and it had become obvious that my Ph.D. dissertation would not be published. It was a study of colonial Newport, Rhode Island. It emphasized the role of the merchant community of the seaport city. I wrote it at a time when “town studies” were all the vogue. But my dissertation did not follow the usual and expected pattern. It avoided all statistical analysis—remember my math phobia! And thus it was not of much interest to the scholarly community. I published three articles based on the dissertation, but never got a book contract.

Because I had always been sympathetic to the underdog and the “losers,” I decided to examine the experience of Americans who remained loyal to the Crown during the American Revolution. I stumbled on the story of William Franklin, Benjamin’s illegitimate son, who was a loyalist. It was such a dramatic story. It served to remind me that the American Revolution was not just a war for independence, but a civil war. The war tore families, towns, and churches apart. In the case of the Franklins, father and son never reconciled. Having published a book on William Franklin, I continued to be interested in all of the Franklins. Thus, I wrote two more books and a number of articles focusing on Benjamin, William, and Deborah (Benjamin’s wife.) Every time I wrote something, I would swear that I was through with the Franklins forever. But somehow, they kept coming back to haunt me. Here’s a link to some of my published works which include Benjamin and William Franklin: Father and Son, Patriot and Loyalist; William Franklin: Son of a Patriot, Servant of a King; The Making of a Patriot: Benjamin Franklin at the Cockpit; First Lady of Letters: Judith Sargent Murray and the Struggle for Female Independence:

Brown: Talk about your most memorable days at work.

Skemp: No one day sticks out. Perhaps the most rewarding experience was my involvement in the beginning stages of the Sarah Isom Center. Established in 1982, under the leadership of Jan Hawks, the Center struggled to find a footing, a mission, and a constituency in the early years. None of us knew what we were doing. There were very few women faculty members at the time, so we had few resources to draw upon. And while many faculty members supported our endeavors, others were incredibly hostile. Most discouraging, the women students were simply not interested in what we were trying to do. Over time, that seems to have changed. We have excellent people in charge of the Center, many more women faculty to provide support, and students who really care about our endeavors. At long last, it is possible to minor in gender studies. I see a very bright future for the Center.

Another memorable experience was my appointment as the Clare Leslie Marquette Professor of American History. It was meaningful because it came upon the recommendation of my colleagues. I was also pleased that Clare Marquette was an Early American historian at the University for many years.

Sheila Skemp pictured at Bishop Hall on the Ole Miss Campus.

Brown: What are some skills that you think everyone should learn?

Skemp: Reading, of course. But reading actively and critically.

Brown: Which of your personality traits has been the most useful?

Skemp: I’m not sure I have any! Maybe my willingness to persevere, even when the future looks pretty bleak has been most useful.

Brown: I understand you are a Cubs fan. How did that begin?

Skemp: I grew up as a Cubs fan. Both my grandfather and father were avid fans, and my brothers and I inherited that passion. I never thought they would even be in a World Series, much less win one. But the night they won it all will always be one of the best experiences of my life. My only regret is that my dad didn’t live to see it happen.

Sheila Skemp with brother, Doug, in Cleveland, attending a 2016 Cubs-Cleveland World Series game.

Brown: What are the most common roadblocks that stop people from achieving their dreams?

Skemp: Poverty above all—and lack of a strong support group. When people are struggling even to put food on the table or pay the rent, it’s hard for them to envision a future that might be better and different. If they have no mentors, no role models, they find it difficult to entertain thoughts of advancement even at a very modest level, and they feel defeated before they even get started. Moreover, their experiences with failure often lead them to sell themselves short, to give up too soon, convinced that a bright future is simply not in the cards for them.

Brown: If there was something in your past you were able to go back and do differently, what would that be?

Skemp: I think I would take my graduate work more seriously than I did. I was in graduate school at a time when universities across the country were torn apart by anti-war protests. I became so involved in political activity that my academic work was almost an afterthought. I did well enough, but had no real ambitions to do much more than get a job someplace and enjoy the “life of the mind.” Like so many of my cohorts, I tended to disdain people who were “career-minded” and ambitious as hopelessly bourgeois. As a result, I was a slow starter. I wasted a lot of time and didn’t really come into my own until I got the job at the University of Mississippi.

Brown: Was there a single event that had the biggest impact on who you are?

Kemp: I was very naïve and ignorant when I was an undergraduate. My plans for the future were nebulous at best. I thought I would get a job teaching history at the high school level, even though I knew that such jobs were few and far between. Somehow I vaguely thought it would all work out. When I was a junior in college, one of my professors casually asked me where I planned to go to graduate school. My response must have shocked him. “What,” I asked, “is graduate school?” His answer, and his encouragement thereafter, really changed my life for the better!

Sheila Skemp in Switzerland, next to Europe’s largest active glacier in 2018.

Brown: How comfortable are you with change?

Skemp: In terms of cultural change, I am totally comfortable. Technological change rather frightens me. I still don’t know how to give a lecture using PowerPoint! In terms of my personal life, I do like a certain amount of security. Perhaps because it took me so long to get a tenure track job, I value security and stability in my own life. I’m not much of a risk-taker.

Brown: What’s the best part of your day?

Skemp: The evening. Chores done. No more demands on my time. I can just relax and do my own thing.

Brown: What are you passionate about?

Skemp: I care a great deal about politics and world affairs. I used to love teaching. I especially liked teaching the American History survey course. Encountering students just out of high school—students who were bright but relatively uninformed, and often poorly taught—was always a pleasure. I never tired of seeing that (all too infrequent) spark of understanding in students’ eyes when they learned something that challenged their own world view. I also taught a course entitled the “American Dream” which I loved. It was always my most popular course, and I often told students that it was the one course I would willingly have taught for free. It forced students to think outside the box, to question their assumptions, and to think more seriously about their place in the world.

Brown: What is the best advice you ever received?

Skemp: Go to graduate school!

Brown: What’s your favorite way to waste time?

Skemp: Reading mysteries.

Brown: What has become your routine since you retired?

Skemp: That’s what makes retirement great—there is no routine. I just do what I feel like doing when I feel like doing it. And no alarm clock!

Brown: What’s left on your bucket list?

I want to keep traveling. I have yet to go to Africa, Australia/New Zealand, or Vietnam. I’ve traveled a lot since I retired. My travels have been my true joy. I’ve visited the UK and most countries in Europe on many occasions. I’ve also gone to China, Russia, Peru, the Galapagos, Cuba, and Antarctica. It’s hard to pick the very best or most memorable trip. They’ve all been wonderful in their own way. I’ve also met some terrific and interesting people on these trips, some of whom I have traveled with again. I want to continue to travel until my body tells me it’s time to give it up.

It’s been a great ride!

Sheila Skemp in 2016 at Hadrian’s Wall, the remains of stone fortifications built by the Roman Empire following its conquest of Britain in the second century A.D.

Bonnie Brown is a retired staff member of the University of Mississippi. She most recently served as Mentoring Coordinator for the Ole Miss Women’s Council for Philanthropy. 

She can be reached at bbrown@olemiss.edu.

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