James C. Kearney
I make my home with my wife of over forty years, Paulina van Bavel, on the ranch where I grew up. We have three grown children and four grandchildren.
My father ranched and my mother taught English during my whole childhood and adolescence. In addition to family land, my father also managed several large ranches for a wealthy Houston family and leased additional acreage for pasturage. When my brother and I were kids it was all mixed, but the net effect was that we had thousands of acres of the rolling hills of the post-oak savannah and rich bottomlands along the Colorado River and Skull Creek bottoms over which to roam and make our fun. Hunting, fishing, horses, dogs, jeeps–It was a boy’s paradise and the memories are powerful. Years later, when I was at a crossroads in my life, the call of the land and a life close to the outdoors and to the fascinating characters who inhabited this world proved irresistible, and I chose the land over an academic career.
Growing up on a ranch in South-Central Texas has been one of the defining experiences in my life. Through a work in progress provisionally titled, “Life is a Story or how I arrived at a Complimentary View of Life,” I attempt to capture this very quintessentially Texas experience before it vanishes forever in the rear view mirror of our increasingly urban world.
I graduated from Columbus High School in 1964. Columbus at the time was a sleepy Texas town of 3,500, the county seat of rural Colorado County, with a very interesting demographic mix. The base was Anglo-American with most of these tracing roots to the lower South. But a substantial portion of the white population, perhaps 50 percent or more, traced its roots to either Germany or Bohemia/Moravia in Central Europe rather than to Great Britain and the Old South. This demographic mix was also reflective of my family genealogy; a base in the British Isles with a Moravian Protestant German component. Although many of these citizens were third or even fourth generation Texans, it was still very common to hear German and Czech spoken when I was a kid. The interaction of these three groups fascinated me from an early age.
My academic interest In German language and culture and in European immigration to Texas in the 19th century harks back the rich cultural and demographic mix I experienced in my youth.
There was also a very large black population in Colorado County, around 40 percent of the total at the time, a legacy of the slave-based plantation culture that had spread up and down the Colorado River basin in the early years of the republic and statehood. Columbus was still very much Old-South during my childhood and adolescence. Absolute segregation was the norm. My class of 1964 was the last class to graduate from a fully segregated school system.
Coming to terms with and overcoming the racism that permeated my youth has been a recurring challenge. I also deal with this aspect of my upbringing in Telling a Story, mentioned above.
After high school I enrolled at Texas A&M University, which at the time was exclusively an all-male, military college. I was assigned to “Animal A,” and it was our habit to fall out for morning formations with the yell, “Pray for War”! We soon got our wish. I came to the conclusion that military life was not my cup of tea so I transferred to the University of Texas after my sophomore year in 1966.
The two schools contrasted in every way, and I clearly felt more at home at UT than A&M, but in retrospect I value my A&M days as well. It certainly helped me to comprehend the military frame of mind, which is important for understanding the flow of human history. Moreover, this exposure became a real benefit once I joined a real army in a real war.
My A&M experience was very important in developing a philosophy of life and history that I call the ‘complimentary approach.’ More about that under the “Life is a Story” tab.
I completed my undergraduate studies at the University of Texas in 1969 with a dual major in History and German literature. These years were very important in my life, a roller coaster of uppers and downers, of first love and first rejection, of intense friendships and painfully awkward missteps, of discovering the sheer joy of learning in a vibrant intellectual atmosphere, and of passing through all these things and others animated by the full intensity of youth. During this period I also became radicalized by degrees as a result of the Vietnam War, and this growing radicalization began to put me odds with my own heritage, background, and family. The passage of time has validated my skepticism about the war, but here is not the place to argue the pros and cons of Vietnam. Suffice it to say my convictions grew so strong that I resolved I could only serve as a conscientious objector, that is as someone who could not be legally compelled to carry or use a weapon, and if this were not possible, to flee to Canada, and by so doing, sever, possibly forever, the bonds that held me to the family and place where I grew up.
Vietnam and the times that went with it, which coincided with my university years, were also defining events of my life. Together with a friend I am working on a book about our shared experiences as COs in Vietnam. Many hundreds of books have been written about Vietnam, but few, if any, from the perspective of conscientious objectors compelled to front line service in a war they abhorred. (See “Vietnam; a shared Experience” under ‘books in progress’ tab.)
After discharge from the Army Hospital at Ft. Sam Houston in June 1972 I resumed my studies at the University of Texas and left as an ABD four years later. During this period I met my future wife, Paulina van Bavel. This summer we celebrated our forty-fourth wedding anniversary. This partnership is by far the best thing I took from my university years. I had in the meantime reconciled with my elderly parents, who had been baffled, angered, and embarrassed by my Vietnam stance. Consequently, it became possible to move back to Colorado County and take over management of the ranch. I had become disenchanted with academic life and together we made the decision to move back to Colorado County and make our home on the ranch where I grew up. It has been gratifying for us to see first our children and now our grandchildren bond with the beautiful land we call the 88 Ranch (see tab). My parents had always endeavored to be good stewards and they bequeathed this attitude along with the land. We are gratified to see that all our children are also inspired and guided by the ideals of sustainability and good stewardship.
Love of land and place has been determinative factor in my life and work.
My intellectual side slumbered but never fully expired during these many years of earning my living solely by my hands and the sweat of my brow as a rancher. I continued to read and think and seek out people who were also interested in the life of the mind. A group of like-minded people began to coalesce around a remarkable Renaissance man, Bill Stein, who had abandoned a promising and lucrative career in business to return to his hometown and pursue his real passion in life, history. Bill had taken a position as archivist at out local library and eventually graduated to librarian. His reputation began to spread and slowly a group of similarly disposed men and women began to gather in the Texas Room of Nesbitt Memorial Library on a regular basis to discuss art, music, history, literature, and politics. We were a most diverse group with no ideological acid test. Our only rule was that you had to argue from the facts and be respectful to other points of view. The reputation of Bill Stein the Texas Room began to grow to the point that it is safe to say that it became the center of gravity of historical awareness and intellectual life for this whole part of Texas. Bill’s reputation as something of an eccentric also began to spread. Bill would often assume his favorite position during these informal confabs, which was to lie in the middle of the floor flat on his back and hold forth.
“An unexamined life is not worth living,” so stated a famous philosopher once upon a time. Columbus was a long ways from Athens, but the Socratic method lived on with Bill Stein and in the Texas Room. He gently nudged you to question and reexamine your own core beliefs, which is the first step toward real intellectual growth. He was a great friend and a powerful influence on my life.
One of the regulars at the Texas Room (now Bill Stein Room) was an equally eccentric transplanted Dane by the name of Anders Saustrup. Anders was quirky, difficult, demanding, moody, untactful, but he was also a brilliant historian who had a tape recorder memory and encyclopedic knowledge of Texas history with a specialty for Texas German history and a knowledge of the natural world that was unmatched. He was one of the regulars at the Texas room although he called home a tumble down shack in the woods near Round Top, thirty miles to the north. Anders became my mentor for my first book, Nassau Plantation, which was released in 2006. He introduced me to all the major research libraries and the collections they contained. I was amazed to discover how much primary resource material existed and how much of it was in German and for this reason either neglected or woefully underutilized.
German immigration in Texas is quite a dramatic story and the story lay literally at my doorstep. I immersed myself in all the secondary literature and also the German primary sources, for instance, the Solms-Braunfels Archives, the 40,000 documents associated with the Society for the Protection of German Emigrants in Texas, the so-called Adelsverein. (see ‘Adelsverein’ under ‘Works in Progress’). After ten years of on and off research and writing, the effort finally paid off and resulted in my first book, Nassau Plantation, the Evolution of a Texas German Slave Plantation, which was released in 2002. The book enjoyed uniformly favorable reviews and the hardcover edition sold out in three years.
My first book, Nassau Plantation, opened doors and ushered in a new phase of my life, that of a published author who enjoyed the approbation of his peers.
One thing leads to another. My research into Nassau Plantation led me to become interested in Friedrich Armand Strubberg, aka Dr. Schubbert, a gifted, complicated, and somewhat sinister character who served as first colonial director of Fredericksburg, TX, and later took up a new career in Germany writing adventure novels based on his first hand experiences on the Texas frontier. In this regard, he helped to invent a whole new genre of literature that we are all very familiar with and take for granted, namely the ‘Western.’ You can read more about this under the sub tab ‘Friedrichsburg’ under ‘books.’ My second published book was an annotated translation of one of the more important of his novels, Friedrichsburg, which offers a fictional love story and captive narrative built around the historical foundation years of the Hill Country town by that name.
But something very amazing and unexpected happened on the way to Dodge. The book also led, after a very long hiatus, to my doctorate. Serendipity, I bumped into Dr. Janet Swaffar at an art opening in Columbus where her husband Bob was a participant. We had not seen each other since she was my supervisor at UT when I was a TA. She was still a member of the faculty and after a long discussion she dropped a bombshell. It might be possible to use my Strubberg translation as the long missing dissertation and thus earn my doctorate. She said she would look into it, and she did, and a year later, I proudly walked across the stage to get my diploma.
I am eternally indebted to Dr. Swaffar, my honored, beloved Doctor Mutti. She embodies the best of academia. Enough said, with a doctorate in hand, it was now theoretically possible to teach at a tier 1 university, and an invitation was not long in coming.
Friedrichsburg was very well received. Don Graham, the premier expert on Texas literature, reviewed it favorably in Texas Monthly. It also received the Summerfield G. Roberts award for the best Texas book for 2012. The following year I received an invitation to teach at the University of Texas.
I now teach an upper division course on European immigration to Texas in the 19th century and a Signature Course comparing dissent during the Civil War in Texas with dissent during the Vietnam War. In this course I join my academic interests with my life story. Signature courses are a big deal at the University of Texas. Professors must make proposals to the School of Undergraduate Studies and only a few will receive approval. SCs are designed to expose incoming freshman to senior faculty at the beginning of their academic experience. All signature classes carry a writing flag and stress critical thinking, which is to say, multiple-choice exams, that pox on American education, are banished from the classroom. Students must be able to take a position, argue it from the facts, and frame their arguments coherently in concise, grammatically correct English.
Being a teacher is one of the basic experiences of life. As I look back, it has certainly been one of the most rewarding. The Socratic method is my tool of choice.
In 2015, Dr. James Crisp, renowned Texas historian and friend, nominated me to become a member of the Texas Institute of Letters. Lonn Taylor seconded the nomination and the membership voted me in. I was inducted during the 2016 annual banquet.
To be honored by your peers, there is no substitute.