Facilitator of History
"If you get people interested in history," Dr. Lewis P. Jones believes, "they'll teach themselves."
Click here to sample Dr. Jones' Sandlapper columns
on fascinating aspects of South Carolina history!
by Dan Harmon
The story is told of a football player in Dr. Lewis Jones' freshman history class at Wofford College who not only dozed in the back of the room, but commenced to snoring. "I would ask one of you to wake him up," the professor commented dryly, "but I suppose I'm the one who put him to sleep." The napping athlete was roused by the laughter of his classmates.
That brand of genteel humor has endeared Jones to many a scholar and made the retired history department chair's reputedly difficult classes not only bearable but popular. Countless Wofford grads during four decades endured the demands of - and others avoided, if they could - the venerable Jones, who recently turned 80 and announced his retirement (again) as the regular "South Carolina Yesteryear" columnist for Sandlapper.
What did the doyen of state historians think he wanted to be in life as a teen-ager on the verge of leaving his hometown of Laurens to begin studies at Wofford? "Probably a train engineer - but I didn't take myself too seriously."
He still doesn't. Nor does he take history, his passion and vocation, as seriously as some other scholars. (Asked if there's any part of history he takes seriously, he snaps, "I take it all seriously." Then he deliberates a moment and adds, "Some of it is more . . . gratifying . . . than other parts, let's say.") He doesn't trivialize somber episodes, but he's always had a penchant for placing historical nonsense in just the proper perspective.
Nor does he take his impressive string of accomplishments and honors too seriously. Over lunch at Harry's on Morgan Square in Spartanburg, an admiring diner at the next table remarks, "I just read a nice article about you." "Find something else to read," Jones grumbles.
Those honors include the Order of the Palmetto (the state of South Carolina's highest award) and the Distinguished Service Award of the National Alumni Association. In 1996, the Lewis P. Jones Research Fellowship was established at USC's South Caroliniana Library.
A past president of the South Carolina Historical Association, Jones is a member of the review board of the SC Department of Archives and History and a member of the SC Committee for the Humanities. He has served on the review board for the National Register of Historic Places, and he still lectures on a variety of history topics.
His writings have been prolific. What began as a regular history column for the original Sandlapper in January 1969 evolved into one of his first books: South Carolina - A Synoptic History for Laymen. He also has authored Stormy Petrel: N.G. Gonzales and His State; South Carolina: One of the Fifty States; Religion in the Southern States; The South Carolina Civil War of 1775 and Books and Articles on South Carolina: A Guide. He considers the latter effort - a priceless road map for researchers - to be his most important. The Gonzales book was born when he literally "stumbled over" a box of Gonzales family papers at a Duke University library while working on his doctorate. He wrote his 701-page dissertation on the topic. "They still laugh about it," he says.
Jones' comfortable, well-stocked library is where you're likely to find him these days. (Many more volumes are stored upstairs.) His favorite periodical is The Christian Science Monitor. "I think it's the fairest. I couldn't live without it. It's intelligent, balanced."
He enjoys Christian Century, Atlantic Monthly and Smithsonian. He once acted in an advisory role for A Prairie Home Companion, the popular NPR serial, on the topic of shape-note hymnody. His current project: researching the history of Central United Methodist Church in Spartanburg.
THE ENTIRE SPAN of the Jones' basement is in miniature rails, train yards and scenic countryside, all framed by the dank understructure of a house. Tracks extend along the walls, behind the staircase and under the patio, and disappear beneath ducts and into handmade tunnels. "There are different lines, but basically four loops," Jones explains. Standing at his central control, he starts up a train. "Under the steps back there is a switch," he muses aloud. "We could dispatch it back there, but it would be a dangerous thing to do, because if it derails it would take half an hour to get over there to it."
Once when workers came to replace a hot water heater, they emerged from the basement shaking their heads. "You're gonna have to get your railroad out of the furnace," they told Jones in no uncertain terms.
He began collecting HO scale trains and building his massive system in 1955. "A fellow gave me a piece of plywood and suggested I run a train on it." His passion for trains has evidenced itself in several of his Sandlapper columns and in his choice of excursion trips.
If his train hobby seems slightly out of character for a man of his academic stature, try to envision him as captain of sub chasers and LSMs during World War II. Jones graduated from Wofford College in the late 1930s, and the best job he could find with his foreign language degree was teaching high school English back in his hometown. But with Pearl Harbor, his education landed him a naval officer's commission. He served in the Atlantic, Caribbean and Pacific.
The postwar Navy wasn't for him, so he retired and accepted a one-year contract teaching freshman English at Wofford. "That one year turned into 40," he recalls. By the second year, he was on the history faculty. He became Wofford faculty secretary in 1958, history department chair in 1962 and holder of the William R. Keenan Jr. Professorship in 1972. He retired from the college in 1987.
He still keeps up with his former students, and they with him. They remember him with a mixture of respect, laughter and fear.
The Rev. Sam Harmon, a United Methodist minister in Columbia, studied under Jones for five semesters and recalls the "spicy stories" the professor would tell about historical characters. "He's really the reason I decided to be a history major. I liked his style of teaching. Students considered him hard to get a good grade under, but he appealed to me with his humor. He was laid-back. I found that if you'd dig in and study, it wasn't that bad. But you had to work hard for him."
Jones and his wife Denny have four grown children. Barney, the oldest, lives in Spartanburg; Charles, the youngest, lives in Alaska. Daughters Meng Sheridan and Faris Harper live in Anderson and Mt. Pleasant, respectively.
What is the essence of the Jones legacy?
"I'm no great scholar," he assesses. "I don't think of myself primarily as an author. I don't know if I would even consider myself a teacher. I've had some success at interesting people in history.
"It's sort of like a toy train. You wind it up, and it'll run itself. If you get people interested, they'll teach themselves."
Jones, who has won a bout with cancer and survived a heart attack, stands firm in his decision to retire from his Sandlapper affiliation, which he had resumed when the magazine was revived in 1989. But he acknowledges he'll miss it. "Kept me out of trouble," he says.
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