Today The Junto welcomes a guest post from Kathryn Snyder who is currently a PhD Candidate at the College of William and Mary. Before starting on her PhD studies, Snyder obtained an MA in history at Texas Tech University where she studied with Ethan Schmidt.
As a 20 year-old junior at Texas Tech, I had no plans to pursue a postgraduate degree in history. A single semester in Dr. Ethan Schmidt’s class on the Atlantic World changed that. He had an enthusiasm and dramatic flair during lecture that came from his love of colonial history and a background in a musical theater troupe he joined during his childhood in small-town Peabody, Kansas. After beginning every class with eighteenth-century folk music and drinking songs, he launched into topics ranging from the lives of women in Virginia to the epic clash of empires on the high seas, making them all equally compelling and important. He convinced me to apply to Tech’s graduate program, helped me win a fellowship, and remained a steadfast, involved advisor for the next two and a half years. One of his greatest talents lay in making his students feel more like equals. For Ethan, everyone who took his classes was an historian. So, it is with pain that I write this tribute, knowing it should be another recommendation for a teaching award.
I could discuss his research on Native groups in Virginia, his love of Edmund Morgan and Gary Nash, or how he enjoyed debating the “radicalism” of the American Revolution, but I’d rather not. I’d rather, instead, remember his generosity and goodness. When I moved into an apartment during my first year of graduate school, I had no furniture and a lot of worry, but Ethan “donated” a sleeper sofa and a burgundy red chair to help fill out my empty living room. The chair legs and back were badly scratched by his two cats, and the sofa had a number of gashes, but I spent more nights falling asleep working on that sofa with an afghan draped over me than I did in my own bed. Since I’ve moved to Williamsburg, my furniture has improved in quality but never in comfort.
I’d rather remember how we’d meet for coffee at the campus bookstore across from the library every other week. He usually ordered a latte. We talked about academia, theses, and classes, of course, but nothing made his eyes light up like they did when the subjects were Kansas Jayhawk basketball and his family–a wife and three children whom he loved more than anything. I once watched a KU game with Ethan and his kids; he spent half the time throwing his blue Jayhawk ballcap across the room in frustration, then running to put it back on before he missed the next play. He and his wife always welcomed his students into their home, whether basketball was on TV or not, and many of us spent holidays with them, basking in their warmth and hospitality. I pestered him to take a research trip with his family up to Williamsburg and the colonial archives here, so that I could return the favor. I’m still having trouble believing that’s no longer possible.
I know, too that I’m only one of many, many students and faculty who loved him. I’m reminded of the importance we should place in our colleagues and extended academic families. It’s necessary that we all publish, work hard, and teach to the best of our abilities. But we should also cherish the friends we have and the friendly faces we see every day. I know that I took for granted Ethan’s presence and perpetual open-door policy he had back in his corner office at Holden Hall. That’s how I see him now: typing in his worn-out rolling chair with only a small lamp on to supplement the west Texas morning sunshine. Ethan, you leave behind many broken hearts but just as many fond memories and gratitude. You will always be my favorite historian.