Great ideas come to people in the strangest of ways — some occur while shaving, others in the middle of a long run. James McPherson, professor emeritus of American history, was mowing the lawn when an idea struck. He stopped the mower and listened to the buzzing of the 17-year cicadas.
"I knew the cicadas were going to be coming out and I just started putting ideas together," McPherson said. "These creatures have larvae that spent 17 years underground, then come out to live for only three weeks. And I thought, 'Well, there's a lesson here if I can only figure it out.'"
What started out as a strange beginning for a speech turned into a poignant and encouraging baccalaureate address. McPherson compared seniors — who had spent over 17 years working towards graduation — to the 17-year cicadas.
McPherson concluded his speech by considering the effect of Sept. 11 on the seniors' undergraduate years.
"[Talking about 9/11] from that experience, you have gained the perspective to endure both the good and the bad times that will come in the future . . . It did touch your hearts with fire and teach you that life is a profound and passionate thing. Generations that have gone before have been similarly touched. They responded to the challenges with courage and creativity. I am confident that you will do the same."
With that, McPherson concluded the last speech of his University career. He retired after 42 years of instructing undergraduates and graduates, leaving a lasting legacy as both teacher and scholar.
"Professor McPherson was a great teacher who clearly cared about his students," Shaun Callaghan '06 said in an email. "He was one of the best teachers at Princeton — based on his ability, research and reputation."
Callaghan witnessed McPherson's final course lecture for HIS 376: The American Civil War and Reconstruction. Students and faculty alike packed McCosh 50 to see McPherson off with an eruption of applause.
"A group of my friends led the charge in initiating a 21-gun salute with super soakers as Professor McPherson left the podium," Callaghan said. "I think they only got seven off."
Since his first year on campus in 1962, McPherson has earned several prestigious awards and honors. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for "Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era." In 1991, he was named by the U.S. Senate to the Civil War Sites Advisory Committee.
He also won the Lincoln Prize in 1998 for "For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War," and was named the Jefferson Lecturer in 2000 by the National Endowment for the Humanities — the organization's highest honor for achievement in the humanities. In 2004, he served as president of the American Historical Association.
Though officially retired, he is at work on two books, "Lincoln as Commander-in-Chief in the Civil War" and "Navies of the Civil War."
"McPherson was a marvelous historian who brought culture, religion and politics to life to tell an epic story," said Jeremy Adelman, chair of the history department. "We were lucky [to have him]."
The loss of McPherson and the impending retirement of Nell Painter, professor of American and African-American history, has left the history department in search of two 19th-century historians.
"Students should know that [filling McPherson's position] is a top priority for us," Adelman said. "It's like having a body without a lung. Jim was a wonderful colleague to have and we're going to miss him."
The hiring process began when the department received approval to hire another professor.
The search committee, led by history professor Christine Stansell, initiated the application process. The committee will read and rank hundreds of applications in order to produce a smaller list of candidates. After the history department interviews each of these candidates, the committee will recommend two for consideration.
"We are really emphasizing the importance of the 19th century in our department and in U.S. history," Adelman said.
"We really want to nail down two fantastic people. That's why when you've got a field like the 19th century Civil War; it's important to get a senior scholar on the field, but at the same time you also want to cultivate junior people."
"There's not going to be anyone quite like McPherson, so people shouldn't be looking for his clone," Adelman added.
"We will do our very best to bring in someone who will give us their own kind of distinction."
Adelman encouraged students to follow the candidacy period.
News on the search will be posted in the history department.
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