|College Family Mourns Death of Babcock Professor of History Emeritus Malcolm Partin
October 13, 2011
|Malcolm O. Partin - 1936-2011
Professor Emeritus of History Malcolm Overstreet Partin, who impressed many Davidson students during his 35 years at the college as a raconteur of modern European history par excellence, died October 12 at Lake Norman Regional Medical Center. He was 75.
He was the son of the late Loyd Lafayette Partin and Margaret Overstreet Partin of Enfield, N.C. He graduated from Enfield High in 1954, then graduated Phi Beta Kappa from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a degree in history. Later he earned a master's and Ph.D. in history from Duke University, where he was a James B. Duke Scholar. His research in France as a Fulbright Scholar gave him the basis for his dissertation, which was later published by The Duke University Press, Waldeck-Rousseau, Combes, and the Church: The Politics of Anticlerlicalism, 1899-1905.
The esteem in which students and colleagues held Partin was evidenced throughout his career at Davidson, where he came to teach in 1968. He received two of the college's top teaching awards--The ODK Teaching Award in 1988, and the Hunter-Hamilton Love of Teaching Award in 1995. Today, the Malcolm Overstreet Partin Professorship attracts talented young pre-tenured faculty members who demonstrate a love of classroom teaching. A student scholarship in Partin's name benefits students with financial need who have an interest in history. The Partin Office in Chambers was given in his honor by advisees who recalled that "a word from him truly was worth a thousand pictures."
Partin's faculty colleagues fondly remember his work as their secretary for 192 meetings from 1976 to 2000, in which capacity he also signed some 8,500 Davidson diplomas. He was known for peppering his meeting minutes with the kind of wry, arch observation that was his hallmark. On Feb. 4, 1992, he began one sentence, "Contrary to all hope and expectation, the discussion did at length conclude...."
Partin is survived by his sister Margaret Partin Pyatte (Claude) and brother John Sidney Partin, both of Enfield, N.C.; two nephews, John Sidney Partin II (Pace) of Smithfield, N.C. and Wesley McKinnon Partin (Beth) of Rocky Mount, N.C.; two great-nephews; and long-time friend, Leland M. Park of Davidson.
A memorial service will be held at 3 P.M. on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2011 at the Davidson United Methodist Church, conducted by the Rev. Dr. Jody Seymour, senior pastor. In lieu of flowers, the family invites donations to the Malcolm Overstreet Partin Scholarship, Davidson College, P.O. Box 7173, Davidson, NC 28035.
Following is a tribute to Partin published on the occasion of his retirement, and an article published at that time in the Davidson Journal:
You might say that Malcolm Partin has made history at Davidson despite himself.
The list of professional publications penned by this modest, self-deprecating Babcock Professor of History would fit on a single one of the note cards that prompt his classroom lectures. But the other side of the ledger groans under the weight of thirteen volumes of minutes he compiled as longstanding faculty secretary, and the collective opinion of legions of students who consider him the best lecturer they ever heard.
|Partin in the classroom, with the outline of the day's lecture written on the board.
Partin found his niche in the classroom, evolving into one of Davidson's most popular professors by applying his wit and wisdom to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European history in an engaging way that endeared him to students. That role suited his personality just fine, and he never attempted to expand on it. He stayed out of faculty politics, taught the historical canon he learned during his own student days, and was as reliable in his duties and habits as the sunrise over Chambers Building.
He taught Davidson students in the same lecture-based way he witnessed from his mentors at UNC and Duke. He felt students were best served by serving them a lively, chronological, beginning-middle-end narrative, rather than engaging in extensive dialogue and classroom discussion. He joked, "My tongue and brain are all that's necessary! A word from me is worth a thousand pictures."
He eschewed computerized instruction and audiovisual aids, and never found it necessary to dress up like Napoleon to talk about Napoleon. He insisted that people, and not social forces like the economy and political ideology, shaped history.
Though students occasionally interrupted him with questions, it was clear that he was the show, and Partin relished his position at the podium. "Who's ever had a chance to talk in my class but me?" he chuckled. "I'm the one being paid to strut around and orate. I see all of the virtues of discussion, but it's not the way I was taught, and I've never been smart enough to pick up the technique. Many of my colleagues in the department are great lecturers and effective discussion leaders, and I greatly respect their skills. But I'm resigned to doing the one thing I do best, enjoy most, and I hope has made my classes worthwhile."
He began each class by writing an outline of the material to be covered on the board. Though he placed note cards on the podium, he seldom needed them to prompt his remarks. Stoop-shouldered and rail thin, he narrated history while wandering slowly and haphazardly at the front of room, his hand dancing in the air as if conducting his monologue. He spoke in sprightly fashion of alliances, treaties, and powerful rulers like Otto von Bismarck, Napoleon, and Catherine the Great whose ambitions destined their subjects to wealth or death.
He engaged students with anecdotes and insights, inviting them to join him in discovery of two centuries of triumphs and tragedies that ultimately helped explain their own contemporary circumstance. He began one segment by saying, "Dig in your heels now, because we're about to tackle the 'Eastern Question' in all its dreadful splendor..."
The benevolent dictatorship of his classroom was balanced by his behavior outside that domain. Students stopped by his office regularly in the afternoons for conversation and help, and he frequently dined with them. "He's a friend and confidant who takes time to know you as a person, and not just as a student," wrote one admirer.
|Professor Emeritus Partin and former student Will Mathis '88 tie a tag on a tree Mathis planted on front campus in Partin's honor at the celebration of the Malcolm O. Partin Professorship in May 2010.
It seems incongruous that someone with such an erudite understanding of world-shaping events grew up as a farm boy in rural Halifax County, N.C., just a few miles up the road from Enfield. "It was pleasant, but not idyllic," he recalled. "My father wasn't a taskmaster, but he thought that a little farm work in the summer never hurt anybody. So my brother, sister, and I were well acquainted with the joys of raising tobacco."
He claims to have inherited his gentle, distinctive Tidewater accent from a maternal uncle, but doesn't tally it as a virtue. "I never understood a word my uncle Malcolm said," Partin stated. "Unfortunately, I'm talking more like him all the time. I have no idea how my students understand me at all!"
Though his circumstances were modest, Partin never lacked confidence in his own intelligence. "I was the smartest thing on two legs in elementary school," he confessed, "and I figured my academic record at Enfield High would never be surpassed! Looking back on it, I had a goodly number of friends, but I was probably pretty insufferable."
He graduated from Enfield High with eighteen others in the Class of 1954, and only applied to UNC. He claims that motivation and hard work, not brilliance, made him a good college student. His professors thought highly enough of his magna cum laude diploma to help him win a scholarship for graduate work at Duke. He finished the course work for the Ph.D. in 1961 and received a Fulbright Scholarship to complete the research for his dissertation in the largest city he had ever been in after Durham--Paris, France.
He immediately discovered that his high school and college French reading courses were scant preparation for immersion in French society. "When I got off the boat in France, I couldn't understand anything more than if I had landed in Greece," he lamented.
But he read French well, and had no trouble in libraries and archives researching events at the turn of the twentieth century, including the Dreyfus Affair, that led to the permanent separation between the French state and Catholic church. The dissertation was finished in 1967 and Partin received his degree. In 1969 Duke University published the dissertation as his only book, Waldeck-Rousseau, Combes, and the Church: The Politics of Anticlericalism, 1899-1905.
He lived in Paris near the Bois de Boulogne with a French family, and found that the city and its people stoked his enthusiasm for French history. He traveled with his temporary family to the Dordogne Valley, where they visited historic castles and the Lascaux caves. He only regretted never learning to speak the language very fluently. "My tongue is just not designed to trip around French phrases. It's too slow," he explained.
He returned stateside in 1962 and accepted a teaching position at Appalachian State University, where he spent six enjoyable years. He lived part of the time in Valle Crucis, listening to the Watauga River babble outside his front door. "The Mast General Store was just a mile down the road," he said of the formerly unremarkable enterprise that has now spawned several high-brow craft and gear outlets around the state. "It was much more authentic and run-down than it is today, though."
In 1968 he received a call from Davidson. He knew very little about the college at the time, and had never seen the campus. "It was a different business in those days," he said. "The job was not advertised and I never applied. They just called me to come for an interview."
A day of conversation with members of the history department concluded with a formal dinner in the Ney Room of the Ovens College Union. Interim President Frontis Johnston quieted the crowd and asked, "Malcolm, will you return thanks?"
Partin recalled, "I thought it was a religious test, so I just jumped right in and offered thanks. It wasn't until I was driving back to Boone the next day that I realized he was calling on Malcolm Lester and not me!"
He received the job offer despite his brash faux pas, and joined Johnston, Lester, Alec McGeachy, Chalmers Davidson, and Brown Patterson in the history department in the fall of 1968.
For the next two decades the department was distinguished by its "Two Malcolms." Wags and wits referred to Lester as "Malcolm the Greater" and Partin as "Malcolm the Lesser." Partin insisted they were referring to stature rather than virtue!
He joined the faculty at a tumultuous time for Davidson, which was initiating the Blue Sky curriculum, switching from semesters to quarters, and debating coeducation and fraternities. Partin chose to watch from the sidelines rather than get involved.
The department offered a traditional array of European and American history courses. Most of the faculty also served in the Humanities Program, but Partin chose to decline when offered the chance. "I'm pretty selfish," he explained. "I always wanted my own classroom, my own syllabus, my own exams, and my own jokes. Team-teaching has no appeal to me."
He staked out his territory in Room 318 on the third floor of Chambers, and held court in that space virtually his entire career. He has also taught the same courses--or variations on them--every year: Early Modern Europe, Europe Since 1815, the French Revolution and Napoleon, the European Great Powers, and a Napoleon seminar. "That tells you how lazy I am!" he chuckled.
Lazy, maybe, but never stagnant. He replaced certain note cards with new ones as he learned more about his subject, or decided to emphasize different events or personalities. He said, "It never got tiresome to me to teach the same courses. It's always fresh because there's something new each time. There's so much you can't do in a single semester that you can always do something different the following semester."
Students appreciated his predictability. They knew what work would be required each semester--three-to-five books to read, two reviews, a final exam, and a ten-page paper on a restricted topic.
They also appreciated his evaluations, which he admitted were on the lenient side. "I didn't give a lot of A's or C's, but I gave a lot of B's," he said. "I don't remember any D's, and if I ever gave an F it must have been in the first two years, when I thought you had to do it!"
Not feeling the call to extensive scholarship, Partin seldom took full advantage of his sabbaticals. He did once translate some of Napoleon's personal correspondence, but claims it never amounted to much more than a personal amusement. "I never wanted to go off campus and waste college money, so I always stayed around here," he said.
His most enduring legacy to history is probably the thirteen volumes of faculty minutes he recorded during twenty-four years and 192 meetings as faculty secretary. When longtime secretary Alec McGeachy retired from the position in 1976, Partin was tapped to replace him. He accepted the job from a sense of noblesse oblige. "I can't say I enjoyed it," he admitted. "I never liked listening and taking notes. And sometimes our folks, smart as they are, say things that aren't worth taking down. It was a challenge to take their raw spoken words and impose some structure on them. You had to go to every meeting, appear to pay attention, and be careful how you recorded it. I did best job I could, usually got it right, and sometimes made it funny."
His faculty colleagues apparently thought more highly of his ability and service. When he retired from the position in 2000, they proclaimed it a "Davidson History Moment," and composed a tribute. The citation read, "The secretary has sat through all of our carryings on, only on rare occasions rolling his eyes back in disbelief, but then always recording the events of the day as if they were truly oracular in substance."
It was issued with an addendum recording some choice examples of Partin's unique style. In one selection he wrote the following about faculty consideration of an instruction and course evaluation system: "From this point the discussion inexorably broadened and lengthened. There was a diversity of opinion as to how the original motion was affected by the adoption of the amendment, and several attempts at clarification were essayed. Reflecting upon what it had wrought, the faculty discovered that the motion, like Agamemnon at the hands of Clytemnestra, had been 'struck a deadly blow and deep within.'"
Partin noted that the drudgery and pressure of faculty meeting note-taking was offset by the other primary duty of the faculty secretary-serving as marshal during official occasions, and autographing student diplomas. During his secretarial tenure his signature accompanied that of Presidents and Board chairs on about 8,500 student diplomas. "I was proud to know my name was on the diploma whether students turned out to be fools or God almighty," he said. "Signing a college diploma printed in Latin on sheepskin... I liked that!"
Pride has driven his decision to retire at this time. He claims that his eyesight is failing, he loses his train of thought in lectures, can't remember student names like he once did, and doesn't have enough strength in his voice to deliver the lectures that students deserve. "Those students who signed up for my class this semester thinking it would be an epiphany to see Partin in his last stand in the classroom are probably disappointed!" he joked. "I used to be really eloquent on occasion, but it doesn't happen much anymore."
He claims no particular plans for retirement. He likes college town life, and figures to settle down with some low-pressure reading, opera, and gardening.
His legacy is retained on campus through a need-based scholarship initiated by Spencer Redding '72. Redding, a professor in the department of general dentistry at the University of Texas Health Science Center, said Partin lit the fire within that led him to a teaching career. "He's a phenomenal story teller who makes history come alive," said Redding. "I've had a lot of teachers, and he's still the best lecturer I've ever seen."
The affection between professor and students is mutual. Though he minimizes his own gifts, Partin celebrates the strength of the students he has encountered. "I'm amazed at the brilliant students here," he said. "They're genuinely nice guys and girls who achieve things beyond what you'd ever suspect."
As always, though, he concluded that thought with a wry rim shot. "But it's never bothered me to teach students smarter than I am, because they're not smarter at what I do!"