Friday, January 16, 2015

Retiring To New Opportunities: Two Legendary Educators You May Know

Talley Kirkland
In the past few weeks two of the nation's finest Civil War interpreters/educators, Talley Kirkland and Richard Hatcher, retired from their respective positions at Fort McAllister State Park, south of Savannah, Georgia, and Fort Sumter National Monument in Charleston, South Carolina. Kirkland's departure was proceeded by his earlier retirement after thirty years of service at Fort Pulaski National Monument, a National Park Service (NPS) site east of Savannah. Hatcher also had prior NPS assignments at Kings Mountain National Military Park, Colonial National Historical Park, Gulf Islands National Seashore, and Wilson's Creek  National Battlefield. 

Both could have easily chosen an academic track teaching at the university level, archival work in the museum field, authorship of several books of note or management of any of our historic parks and resources from the Civil War era. Instead, they chose to stay close to what is known in the NPS as interpretation.  The term originated in 1896 with the great American naturalist, John Muir, who wrote in his notebook about Yosemite Valley, California: 

I'll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm and the avalanche. I'll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can.

Defining interpretation is much akin to herding cats. It isn't easy because it encompasses the heart (emotion) as much as the brain (reason).  After a century or so the concept remains a process. Today, the NPS says that interpretation:

facilitates connections between the interests of the visitors and the meanings of the artifacts, collections or natural resources of a site. It is these personal connections and powerful meanings that visitors will remember long after their site visit, more so than the tactics involved in a battle, or the names of wetland species. Truly meaningful interpretation relates what is being interpreted to the hearts and minds of the audience and answers the question “Why should I care?” 

Rick Hatcher, the longtime historian at the Fort Sumter National Monument, will retire today.
Richard (Rick) Hatcher

Kirkland and Hatcher have devoted a combined eighty years of their storied careers connecting national and state park visitors to historic resources, to themselves, and to the visitor's conscience.. They did it in blistering summer heat, frigid cold, flood tides, prejudice, and the most wretched circumstances of political correctness. Believe me, they are storied because I can document them having known and worked with both characters for most of those years.  What is remarkable about them is their dedication to authenticity, accuracy, and the understanding of the everyday life of ordinary people. And even more remarkable is the reach of their wisdom. In the college classroom, they could have touched a few hundred a semester, In books and museum exhibits, their touch - impersonable but still meaningful - would have reached many thousands. As field interpreters/historians they had daily face-to-face contact with visitors. In eighty years, I am confident they have talked to millions of them - and you could have easily been one - about the American Civil War, Billy Yank and Johnny Reb, the strategies and tactical engagements, the aftermath, and the impact of the war and its consequences on the contemporary American experience. They helped people understand not only who they were as Americans but why they were. Such revelation can be powerful. For a fact, they have met more than one Wall Street banker who would have traded places on the spot to be paid a modest salary and have the honor to do what they did.

My thanks and congratulation to both Talley and Rick on the conclusion of their park careers and the beginning of new lives within the bounds of their own work schedules. They are going to love the flexibilities and possibilities that await them. Legends are made of such lifetime devotions. I am honored to call them both colleague and friend and look forward to seeing where their futures take them.

Kirkland photo: Jamie Parker/Bryan County Now
Hatcher photo: Post and Courier, Charleston, South Carolina

No comments: