05 August 2015

Professor Morgan Broadhead, 11/30/1939-8/2/2015

Photo taken by me on our last day in Barbados.
Morgan is holding a postcard I had everyone sign.
I was crestfallen to be informed by one of our mutual friends that Morgan Broadhead, a former professor of mine whom I was fortunate enough to also claim as a friend, passed away on Sunday. I ran a quick Google search to see what I could learn. I got to the end of the obituary and saw that he had requested there be no funeral service, no visitation. I laughed. That was precisely how I would have ever guessed he would have wanted things, and I know it's because he knew how many lives he impacted and touched over the years, and how great a fuss we all would have made over him, gathered in one place. He was far too humble for that sort of thing.

Well, unfortunately, one of the things I learned from him was the concept "Obedezco pero no cumplo" - "I obey, but I do not comply", an accepted way for a seafarer to respond to royal decree, the idea being that by the time the orders had been delivered so far out at sea that things had changed and that compliance with the specific directive would not have been favorable. So, respectfully, I will obey my mentor's wishes not to organize or attend a formal service, but I will not comply with his wish not to make a fuss over him.

In fact, the closest to celebrating I know of him doing was there for a few consecutive years, he and his lovely wife Ann would host me for a combined birthday dinner; his birthday was the day before mine. Ann would cook something warm and delicious - I remember her hot brown being particularly wonderful - and we would sit in their kitchen or living room with a bottle of wine and have the storytelling equivalent of a guitar jam for the evening. Morgan's sense of humor was sarcastic but without the undercurrent of meanness that seems to characterize everyone else's sarcasm.

He was also whimsical; I remember one occasion after a symposium on evil, the three of us and my then-girlfriend (whom I met through them) went to dinner. When asked a name, Morgan gave not his own name or that of anyone in the party, but a name plucked from the annals of history. Ann digressed how embarrassing it was when he first started doing that with her, but that she had acclimated. I sometimes try to think of a clever pseudonym to give when someone is taking my food order, and I owe it to Morgan to feel that it's okay to do something like that. One of his favorite names to give was Vercingetorix, the Gallic leader who opposed Julius Caesar. (One of my classmates had that as his middle name, so I found that particularly amusing.)

I took five courses taught by him; World Civilization I & II, Latin American History I & II, and of course Cross-Cultural Studies in Barbados in 2000. I learned a great deal from him, but it was far more than a matter of absorbing trivia and footnotes about bygone eras. He was, for all intents and purposes, my de facto mentor.

Morgan took me under his proverbial wing early in our first course together. I can't recall now what the assignment was, but he made a point to praise my writing. When I expressed to him my intention to become a history teacher, he was thrilled. He was the first history instructor who ever taught me to get away from trivia and focus more on the big picture; that it was less important to know exactly who was present when something occurred than it was to understand why we still discuss today that it occurred at all. I've never cared for the marketing phrase "making history come alive", but it's fair to say that through his tutelage I came to understand how the discipline of history is not static.

When I still envisioned myself taking over a classroom one day, it was unquestionably Morgan I had in mind as my template for how I wanted to conduct myself. He held firmly to his expectations and standards for all of his pupils, but he was also so genial that I think we all wanted to meet them regardless of what they were. Reflecting on him now, I see him as having been a lot like Dickens's Fezziwig:
"Why! Is it not! He has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money: three or four perhaps. Is that so much that he deserves this praise?" 
"It isn't that, Spirit.He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count them up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune."
It really felt that way for me. I studied numerous courses under numerous instructors over the years, and few wielded their authority as benevolently or as encouragingly as did Professor Broadhead. I felt him actively rooting for each of us to have our own epiphanies and successes along the way. He was one of those rare, special people who truly wanted everyone else to succeed in life.

His commitment to that ideal was not restricted to being passive, either. He made himself available to all of his students during lengthy office hours, though far fewer took him up on the offer than he hoped each semester. He taught courses at the prison, because he believed strongly in the role of education in creating new opportunities for a part of our community many would just as soon never help again. Morgan rejected that cynicism, and added to his full workload each semester for years to see to it that the inmates who shared his optimism had as fair a shake as he could create for them.

More than once, he remarked how of all the students he ever taught either at Jefferson Community College, the University of Louisville, or the prison, that it was the prison students who consistently asked detailed questions about the assigned reading. "You read the book?!" he would laugh, incredulously, because the rest of us - and I embarrassingly include myself here - were too privileged to read the textbook more than was absolutely necessary. We skated by on his lively lectures; the inmates delved into their assigned readings with more dedication, and I know without ever having met a single one of them that they did that because they believed that he believed in them.

It's easy to talk of valuing things like redemption, but awfully easy to excuse ourselves from participating in someone else's. Morgan Broadhead believed in people. He wanted them to succeed. I haven't gotten into a classroom, but I truly hope that I've lived up to the example he set for me in other ways over the years.

I've discussed often the impact that going to Barbados with the Broadheads in 2000 had on me, including a spattering of pieces in this very blog. Mine was one of seven groups fortunate to have that experience. There is something of a brotherhood of us Barbados Bound alumni, a fact that I was reminded of just a few months ago when a friend of a friend spied my Barbados Sea Turtle Rescue Project baseball cap and began chatting with me that she had taken the course in a subsequent year. Our specific experiences varied, but the impact that our time there had on us was very much the same.
Morgan introducing to us Winston Farrell, poet laureate of Barbados, and my friend who broke this sad news to me.
Our penultimate night in Barbados, I asked to say a few words to everyone. I had begun those two weeks quite a different person from the one who was getting ready to leave. I knew that in all likelihood, we would lose track of one another (this was before MySpace or Facebook, mind you), but I was also prescient that we would all find that a part of ourselves remained there in that island country. I won't presume to speak for Morgan's spiritual beliefs - a subject we never discussed - but I feel reasonably comfortable saying that there will always be a part of him there, not unlike the Ragged Point Light House shown at the bottom of this writing. He offered guidance when I and countless others needed it, and if there's a greater calling than that, I don't know what it is.

On the last day of class I had with him as my instructor, he shared with us the one piece of advice his mentor had given him. I'm not sure how it fits into this memorial, but I feel compelled to pass it along just the same:

"When you get into things that took place in your own lifetime, it's time to shut up." Maybe it will mean something to one of his myriad other former students who didn't get to hear that from him for one reason or another.

Ragged Point Light House in Barbados, 18 May 2015. Photo taken by me.


  1. Thank you for your heartfelt tribute. My father was, first and foremost, a teacher, and I know he would be pleased to be remembered as such by his students.

    1. You have my sincere condolences, Alex. He spoke of you and your brother with great pride. If I were to distill what I think I took away from my relationship with him, it's that not only did I see him make a difference; he made me believe maybe I could make a difference, too. I lose sight of that confidence at times, I'm afraid, but I think that too is something he and I had in common. Thankfully, he also showed me how important it is to be able to rely on those closest to you to provide clearer perspective, and to find the laughs along the way!

  2. I just learned of his passing today. And, I'm heart broken. I'm crying as thou he is my grandpa. I had him for history 105 last year and he was excited to see that I was thinking about teaching history. We were talking about if I could teach mainly about the Henry the 8th. We became friends. I heard stories about his kids, I shared stories of mine. He gave me advice. We talked about life. He had so much stuff in his office i don't know how he walked around. I would come in and tell him one day he'll walk in and it'll be clean. Because i would sweet talk someone in to letting me in his office to clean it. Lol. He would tell me, you should see all the books in have at home my wife hates it. I enjoyed talking to him. And although it might seem stupid to people When I heard the news i froze. Then I broke down. Even if he was running late to class he would make time to help others. He would explain and show me some of the fossils in his office. He let me look threw the books because I too love books. And I love history books! we even talked about how to get Barbados going again. I gave him all my books for the prisoners. I looked up to him. He had a pure soul. God bless you all. And I'm sorry to hear of his passing. Of there's anything I can do, please let me know. I'm sorry I'm all over the place with this. I didn't get blessed enough to have him in my life for years. But I thank god that I had him as my friend for a year.
    -Samantha Lawson slawson0049@kctcs.edu

    1. Samantha, for whatever it's worth, I can tell you without having ever once had a conversation with Morgan about you, he believed in you. I know this just from the fact that you were familiar with his office; entering that room was always a bit like being inside a library squeezed into a phone booth! He was always outgoing and friendly, but inside that sanctum of his, he could be outright giddy at times. I got a kick out of just listening to him riff on what other people thought of the state of his office.

      I don't know how comfortable you would be about sharing more about your experiences as his student, but if you feel it might help you to do that, you're entirely welcome to either post some of your thoughts on this piece or, if you'd like, you may email me at TravisSMcClain@gmail.com. Regardless of what, or if, you share, I sympathize with how you feel right now.

  3. My Name is Joseph 10/22/2015
    I had the privilege of having Professor Broadhead for two History classes, the last one Spring 2015. He is easily my favorite teacher. Professor Broadhead's insistence on knowing the locations of the countries we studied has already been tested on me in the real world, and though this might sound silly... it was very near the time of his passing and I did not know until today of it, and I remember having smiled thinking of him when questioned and by his insistence I knew the location without hesitation when no one else in a crowded room did.
    Professor Broadhead was having issues with his back so I and several other students were attempting to help him move various objects he liked to use for class from his amazing office in the Seminary Bld, he finally relented not liking any help and we all got to look at his collection of things he had organized in his way about the room.
    I have been looking for him this semester, and not seen him, I was about to go to his office when I couldn't find his classes listed and googled him finding this.
    To Professor Broadhead's family, and Travis McClain, I will miss seeing him, I only knew him from class, and really enjoyed seeing him in your photo's.
    Goodbye Professor I'm sure you will enjoy conversations with Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

    1. Joseph, I'm sure Morgan would have loved to know his insistence on geography benefited you! I'm sure he also appreciated your help carrying things, even as he resented needing your help. Good thing you learned geography, too; it required a strong sense of direction to find your way out of his office!


    2. Joseph, I'm sure Morgan would have loved to know his insistence on geography benefited you! I'm sure he also appreciated your help carrying things, even as he resented needing your help. Good thing you learned geography, too; it required a strong sense of direction to find your way out of his office!


  4. Thank you Travis for this tribute to Morgan. I just learned of his passing. Obedezco pero no cumplo indeed! His impact on me was profound. Morgan was kind, intelligent, and hilarious. One of the best teachers I'll ever ever have the honor to know.