Love of History
Amateur historian. It's hard to get those words out of your head
when you're sitting in the Francis Scott Key Auditorium of St.
John's College surrounded by amateur historians.
historians. Lovers of history. They were out full force this night,
gathering in a college auditorium with the lights not even dimmed,
attending an hour-long lecture and question period given by a
professor of history at the Naval Academy. A few took notes but
most did not. Instead, they listened intently, nodding at a familiar
name, smiling at an ironic anecdote.
If you're not a lover of history and you show up at one of these
lectures, you might find yourself looking at the 100-plus members
of the audience and wondering: Who are these people? What are
they doing here? You might wonder what brought them out of their
houses this night. Why weren't they curled up with a book by Arthur
Schlesinger or watching a World War II documentary on the History
Will Mumford, who organizes the lecture series, knows the audience
fairly well and says that the lectures give the listeners something
that the bookstores and cable channels cannot. "There's usually
local history involved, and a lot of the material is not available
from other resources, either because it is the result of new research
or is something that a local individual with some reputation for
expertise is involved in."
Julia Erickson, who has attended the talks with her husband Donald
for nearly 20 years, agrees. "The talks are always very interesting
and give us a real sense of community. We've learned a lot about
Maryland, Anne Arundel County and Annapolis," she says. "You'd
have to read many different books to get an hour's worth of this
kind of information."
Before each lecture, St. John's hosts a dinner in the neo-classical
Randall Hall dining room. There, people gather with friends old
and new as they discuss longtime interests and the latest historical
research. "The dinner and lecture combination is superb," says
Mumford. "There are around 100 people at every dinner---it's a
perfect evening, going from meal to lecture."
On an evening last November, dinner was sea bass with wild rice
and baked Alaska for dessert. The room was aglow with candlelight,
and tables buzzed with spirited talk from the moment people entered
the hall until the last guests were shooed into the auditorium
for the main event. That night's lecturer was Craig Symonds, who
spoke about the early history of the U.S. Naval Academy. In the
course of his talk he compared to great effect---both intellectual
and comic---the admissions applications of a 19th-century sailor-hopeful
and a modern day mid-want-to-be.
His talk was part of this year's series on the Naval Academy,
which includes "Rocking the Cradle of the Navy: The U.S.N.A. Faculty
and Annapolis" by Michael P. Parker, professor of English, U.S.N.A.
(January 20); "The U.S.N.A. Campus: Buildings and Grounds through
the Years" by James W. Cheevers, curator, U.S.N.A. Museum (February
17); and "Brain and Brawn: Athletics at the U.S.N.A." by David
P. Smalley, Department of Athletics, U.S.N.A. (March 16).
Last year's theme was the Civil War and thus focused on Annapolis
as an army town. That's why, according to Mumford, the Naval Academy
was chosen for this year. Erickson says that the current theme
is a particular delight to her husband. "Donald is a Naval Academy
graduate, so he's eating it up," she says. "He's found out a lot
about the early Academy that he had never known."
The series, which is co-sponsored by the Anne Arundel County Trust
for Preservation and the Friends of St. John's College, began
in 1976 to accompany the nation's bicentennial celebration. Jack
Huston, former chairman of the history department at the Naval
Academy and retired chief historian of the Air Force, coordinated
the series from its founding and remained at its helm until 2002
when Mumford took over. Huston says he's certain that the historians
of Annapolis are benefiting from the new leadership. "History
doesn't repeat itself, but historians have a way of repeating
each other," he jokes.
Mumford is a retired professor of engineering at Anne Arundel
Community College and a retired Air Force officer. He has been
involved in preservation groups throughout the county and chairs
the board of the Anne Arundel County Trust for Preservation.
Mumford has written two books on local history: Barter, Bits,
Bills and Tobacco: The Story of Money in Early Maryland and
Strawberries, Peas, and Beans: Truck Farming in Anne Arundel
County. He made news recently with his discovery of a Chalmers
threepence beneath the basement of a house on Cornhill Street
in the Historic District. The coin, minted by colonial silversmith
John Chalmers, is one of the earliest U.S. coins, and its discovery
on Cornhill Street may substantiate rumors that America's first
mint was indeed located at the site of Mumford's excavation. Still,
despite these highlights on his resume, he claims for himself
the title of amateur historian.
Historians are funny that way. Amateurs have the seriousness-and
often the knowledge-of professionals, while professionals claim
amateur status. Mumford says that the series has grown to embrace
all types: "When the lecture series started, they were inclined
to have professional historians give the talks. When I took over
I wanted to capture the local history scene, and I had to go to
amateurs who had done significant research in specific areas of
"A lot of people are very interested in their past," Mumford says.
"Wherever I've lived, I've always gotten involved in local history.
I've always asked, 'What went on here in the past? Why is this
building this way?' It's so important to associate the present
with the past. I grew up in Annapolis, and Annapolis got me started.
It's so rich with history."
Lectures on Maryland history are free and begin at 8:15 p.m. in
Francis Scott Key Auditorium. For those who arrive early, the
Mitchell Art Gallery is open on Tuesday evenings from 6:15 p.m.
until 8:15 p.m. Candlelight dinners begin at 7:15 p.m. The cost
is $24, and reservations are necessary. For reservations or more
information, contact Anne Zolkower at 410-626-2507, or via email
she is not writing for St. John's
College, Susan Borden is a freelancer specializing in business