The word history normally evokes images of leaders who come and go, or of certain eventful dates that sear our minds. We view it as the panoramic backward glance that might or might not affect our present. Sadly, many of us view history as nothing more than a school subject painfully endured.
But history can be just as personal as it can be distant. Novelist William Faulkner once stated that the past is not over yet. A few events in my life illustrate the truth of his statement. These events constitute a connection between a general, a teacher, and a former Georgia state senator.
It was the spring of 1961 at Forest (Miss.) High School. To some 11th grade students, Margaret Richardson was a scourge, a demanding teacher to be avoided. But to all students she was the last word in American history.
Her Monday classes were for “Current Events.” Our simple assignment was to clip from the Jackson Clarion-Ledger or the Jackson Daily News an article on state or national affairs. When called on, we had to hand her our articles and turn to tell the class what the article was about.
Mrs. Richardson particularly enjoyed and emphasized World War II. Since the textbook stopped at war’s end in 1945, she used the time after current events to fill us in on post-World War II Germany, the Truman era, the Korean conflict, and the Eisenhower years.
Because I had two brothers who fought in World War II, one in Germany, I was all ears when Mrs. Richardson began to describe the 1948-49 Berlin Airlift. She explained that, except by air, the Allied nations were entirely cut off from Berlin, and that without some form of aid, two and a half million people faced starvation. Mrs. Richardson claimed the Berlin Airlift was one of the most brilliant achievements in American history.
When she stated that the Airlift was headed by Gen. Lucius Clay, I wasn’t particularly interested until, with pride, she added, “and you need to know that he was a Southerner.” She further revealed that Clay was a Georgian, a graduate of West Point, and the son of an equally famous Georgian, U.S. Sen. Alexander Stephens Clay (of Marietta). Her respect for Gen. Clay was apparent.
She also described his non-military role in the Eisenhower administration, specifically his planning of the interstate highway system. Clay’s role in this project had slipped from my memory until recently when I read “Eisenhower: The White House Years” by veteran journalist Jim Newton. He recounts how Eisenhower tapped the general to head the study committee for the vast highway network.
According to Newton, Clay reported back to Eisenhower on Jan. 11, 1955, proposing a 30-year plan to build 41,000 miles of interstate highways, principally to link America’s major cities. Newton surmises that Eisenhower chose Clay because he was an engineer and could help sell the idea to Congress by emphasizing its military and civil defense implications. Ike and Clay obviously closed the deal. Think I-20, I-75, I-85, and beyond.
Back to 1961. I performed miserably while giving current events. Withdrawn and incredibly shy, I shook visibly standing before the class. But a teacher saw my need as well as my deep interest in history and politics, and became my encourager.
Stunningly, one Monday after class, she asked, “Are you going to run for Congress someday?” I knew she was trying to get me to think big and to overcome the shyness as well, but Congress was something I couldn’t compute. But General Clay and highways were two things I could compute because of a love for history and for driving.
During college I worked as a surveyor on the long, wooded path that would soon traverse the state of Mississippi as I-20. Stalking that east and west corridor, I thought of General Clay. And in 2004 when I left the Georgia House of Representatives to run for Congress against his grandson, state Sen. Chuck Clay of Marietta, I thought of General Clay again, as well as Margaret Richardson.
I never dreamed I would have any part in building one of the general’s highways, or that I would come to know and respect his grandson, or that an encouraging teacher would unwittingly connect the three of us.
But that’s how history works. Like the Chattahoochee, it bubbles on, affecting and connecting us in ways we seldom notice.
Roger Hines of Kennesaw is a retired high school teacher and former state legislator.