My History

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Arthur Hugo Pitz
History is stories, and this is mine. I was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1942. My parents encouraged reading. The Book House, a series of books filled with myths, legends, and history is still on the bookshelf in our home. From the beginning, I was captivated by stories, and now I love telling stories to our two grandchildren.

My parents, Don and Eola Pitz before my birth

A Charming Combination of Eccentricities
My parents had especially compelling personal stories. My mother, Eola Pitz, was born in east Texas, a descendant of the Houston family. In her family, being a Daughter of the Texas Revolution was an honor to be envied. Unfortunately, her preacher-father abandoned the family, taking what little money there was, when she was very young. She grew up hating both poverty and racial prejudice, and at age eighteen, when her university scholarship didn’t pan out, she left on her own for New York City. She made her way in the big city and married my father at age twenty-nine. My mother always claimed you would never go hungry if you could type, and she insisted that my brother, sister, and I develop typing skills. Mom started college when I entered high school and became a science teacher with graduate degrees. She was a New Deal liberal who loved politics, and in her final years, we teased her about being a C-Span junkie.

My father, Donald Pitz, was a research chemist, who began his career in the U.S. Army. His father, Col. Hugo Pitz, fought in both WWI and WWII. As an Army civil engineer, he was involved in design and construction of buildings at West Point. Unfortunately, he was an authoritarian figure and an abusive father. Dad’s resentment of authority followed him through both his military and civilian careers. The chemistry lab was his refuge, which he replaced after his retirement with the golf course. He was a loving father and grandfather, and his Goldwater Republican political stance was a balance to Mom’s liberal views. My parents were a charming combination of eccentricities. Our family still uses my mother’s colorful sayings from her Texas roots.

Growing Up with the Byzantines
I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t interested in history. My brother Louis and I played games in which historical armies marched against each other. We were both interested in General Belisarius, the top general of Justinian, Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire.

The fortress of Anadolu Kavagi. by Rogiro under Creative Commons license

Ancient stones from ancient times--the fortress of Anadolu Kavagi. By Rogiro under Creative Commons license.

My interest in Byzantine history persisted into high school in Potsdam, New York, where my friend Tom Passino, also a history nerd, debated the strengths of his favorite, the Roman Empire, relative to my favored Eastern Roman Empire. I admired the way the Byzantines stood against so many onslaughts for so long. Justinian’s wife, Theodora, was a character in her own right. Byzantine navies dominated the Mediterranean with their “Greek fire,” which had a secret ingredient that could incinerate enemy ships. I admired Justinian’s law code, which became a basis of our modern legal code, and I appreciated Byzantine art and architecture.

Without a good teacher, all of this was just a hobby. Then along came Mr. Parisian, my World History and American History teacher. He encouraged my interest in history and my friend Tom’s and suggested things for us to read. One of the things I liked most was that he encouraged class participation and gave me a chance to share my ideas. He was extremely knowledgeable, and he was a very nice man. I got the best grades I had every gotten. I should have paid attention to that, but I didn’t. Maybe I started hoping then to be the next Mr. Parisian, but I didn’t realize that for several years.

The Legendary Mr. Gault
Math and science, not history, were what the times demanded. The Cold War was in full swing. Sputnik had been successfully launched, and President Eisenhower appealed to us. He said that the Soviets were ahead because their high school students were studying math and science while American students were dancing to American Bandstand. Life magazine featured photos of studious Soviet students in math and science classes, so I took all the math and science classes I could while my mother studied Russian language.

I assumed I was going to be an engineer until some math and science courses at the University of Illinois taught by professors with heavy foreign accents proved otherwise. I was looking for my direction, since engineering obviously wasn’t going to be it. At that “Now what do I do” point, I found my way at Lyons Township Jr. College, which later became College of DuPage. The college was on the top floor of Lyons Township High School, and there was a large open space where students could hang out and talk. I soon became absorbed in the life of the Jr. College. Academically, I did better than at any previous time in my life. I had shown signs of being a good student, but there I found my path. That’s probably why I spent thirty-five years of my teaching career at Black Hawk College, the community college in Moline, Illinois rather than moving on to something else.

At Lyons Township I met and was taught by one of the most influential figures of my life, my American and Western Civilization teacher Mr. Gault. He brought history alive as a career possibility. He inspired me that I could do what he was doing. I remember that he used a lot of maps, and I still love maps. He had a commanding, but welcoming presence in the classroom. He emphasized critical thinking skills, but he was at heart a storyteller. He helped me understand why this happened, why this led to that, and why we should know anything about it. He knew so much. I’ve had several great teachers, but Mr. Gault was the greatest teacher of my life. Several years later I wrote to thank him.

In Need of Some Polishing
My mom had connections back home in Pottsdam and The State University of NY at Potsdam offered me a transfer deal that would enable me to complete my BA in one year. Potsdam had been a teachers’ college and had only recently developed a Liberal Arts and Sciences program, so I had no outstanding teachers there, but I did well enough as an American History major to earn a full scholarship at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania.

At Bucknell where I majored in European History, I learned how to do research and put together an historical narrative. Dr. Hillyer, my thesis advisor, told me I was “a rough diamond” and proceeded to polish me up. My interest in international relations developed at Bucknell. World War II was my greatest interest, and it became the focus of my Masters thesis, “American Diplomatic Relations with Vichy France.” My rationale in choosing this topic was that I could make use of and improve my French by researching French sources.

One thing led to another, and I began looking for a reputable PhD program in American Diplomacy. In the Fall of 1965, I became a teaching assistant at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb to Dr. Dillon. Besides being an excellent lecturer, Dr. Dillon was a good mentor, who helped his graduate assistants learn about teaching and class management rather than just focusing on his own research and writing.

I majored in American History, with an emphasis on diplomatic history, and had two minors: Latin American History and Modern European History. NIU was a tough program, but it taught me to critically analyze historical evidence. The program required qualifying exams after one year of coursework and two language exams.

Being young and impressionable, I was heavily influenced by Marxist professors, who were a majority of the History Department. Fortunately, my main advisor, Dr. Carl Parinni, while a Marxist, did not force his views down his students’ throats. Nevertheless, I became an ardent follower of Wisconsin’s influential William Appleman Williams, author of The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. The main thrust of his interpretation was that the American form of the Open Door policy was a new form of American imperialism and that American foreign policy was dominated by economic interests and concerns.

Williston Hall at NIU where Suzanne and I fell in love and decided to marry. (photo by birdfreak.com http://flickr.com/photos/birdfreak/ under Creative Commons license

It was a real shock when my dissertation research on Vichy France did not support the Marxist interpretation, but Dr. Parinni was intellectually honest and did not pressure me to force an economic interpretation of the sources. I understood years later that, while there was and still is some degree of truth in Williams’ interpretation, he didn’t take into account Wilsonian idealism. As a grad student, I could not understand Woodrow Wilson because he was not primarily motivated by markets. Later, I saw that a too-narrow focus on economic factors would lead to narrowly focused explanations like claiming that the U.S. went into Iraq because of oil.

Flawed though it was, my coursework and research at NIU gave me a framework for understanding history. Two blindspots of my NIU professors later came to have great influence on the direction of my thinking and my career: American religious values and the Holocaust.

In my last year at NIU I was promoted to Instructor, and I began my teaching career. But the most important thing that happened to me there was that I met and married Suzanne.

The “P” in PhD is for Perseverance
I had completed my comprehensive exams, and was ABD (all but dissertation) in 1969. That summer Suzanne and I did research in Washington DC at the National Archive and in Hyde Park, NY where FDR’s papers are located. In the Fall, we headed for Moline, Illinois, where I had accepted the position of Instructor at Black Hawk College (BHC). We assumed this would be temporary while I was finishing my dissertation since I thought I wanted to work for the State Department in the diplomatic corps. As history would have it, we still live in Moline. That’s not a disappointment. It’s been a great ride.

The first couple of years are a blur. We were newly married, and I was doing the prep for five classes while trying to write my dissertation. BHC was located in the ancient Beling Building, which was the old Moline High School, but I taught U.S. History and Western Civ. down the hill in the basement of the First Methodist Church.

Work on my dissertation was unbelieveably slow. Part of that was because I became a father when our princess Margaret was born. My interest in tennis also got in the way. I became coach of the BHC tennis team.  Recruiting, training, and trying to win became more absorbing to me than Vichy France. But I finally completed a first draft, which was over 700 typed pages. Yes, it was a typewriter then.

After some near disasters and high drama, like a dissertation advisor dying at the last minute, I finally completed my PhD in 1975. Very few of the group I started with ten years earlier made it to the finish line– not that I was any smarter than them, but my mother wanted a son with a PhD and a little of her perseverance rubbed off on me.

Connecting the Dots
During my first ten years of teaching I was primarily a lecturer, and I required my students to do a tremendous amount of reading. Fortunately, I have always loved teaching and I can even face a thick stack of student papers waiting to be graded without dread. The lecturing approach, which was the only I possibility I was aware of back then, forced me to remember enormous amounts of history, and I’m still surprised at some of the detail I can recall. During the 1970’s I also developed an interest in archaelogy, and I studied in the Northwestern University program at Kampsville, Illinois, where it was hotter than blue blazes in the summer.

Not by design, but by happenstance, I became a college administrator for twelve years, though I continued to teach at least one course a year. Our second beautiful daughter, Emily, was born about that time, and the salary increase was an important benefit. Things look very different from “the other side.” Despite a lot of bumps and bruises, I began to understand leadership a whole lot better. By then I had changed my views of American history to a more broad-based and nuanced perspective. I learned negotiation and management skills that eventually helped me become a better teacher.

In 1982 I ran headlong into one of my historical blindspots. I watched a TV documentary titled “The Wall” based on John Hersey’s book about the Warsaw ghetto. I was astounded by two things: 1. I had a PhD with a major in modern European history, and I had never given serious consideration to the Holocaust, and 2. I am a Christian, and I could not understand how the church let this happen. The next morning, I called the Quad Cities Jewish Federation to ask if there was any way I could be of service to them. That phone call changed my life.

Today is March 4, 2009, and Suzanne and I are leaving for Poland in two days, so I’ll have to get back to this story later. Thanks for reading.

Dr. Art Pitz
The Professor’s House

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