MTSU history alumnus Ben Wilkinson considers himself an amateur pop culture historian.
“I celebrate those who contributed immensely to some part of our culture,” Wilkinson said, “eccentric and unique people … who have made an impact on society by doing things their own way and not trying to ‘fit in’ with what society deems as normal.”
Wilkinson recently channeled his passion for history into action by successfully proposing a new Nashville historical marker for one of those unique pop culture figures he so admires — pinup icon and Nashville native, Bettie Page.
“Her importance in our pop culture history is immeasurable,” Wilkinson said. “Everyone from artists, actors, photographers, models and even musicians have sung the praises of the impact that Bettie has had on pop culture … and she deserves the recognition!”
It was an MTSU Topics in Southern Studies course focused on the history of women in the South that first led to Wilkinson’s discovery about Page being a local.
“I loved the course and did some independent research on important women in pop culture from Tennessee,” Wilkinson said. “I randomly stumbled upon the fact that Bettie Page was from Nashville and was amazed to find out about that! At that time, I had a poster of her hung up in my apartment and had no idea she was raised around here.”
Originally from Portland, Tennessee, Wilkinson moved to Murfreesboro in 1996 and graduated with his history degree in 2001 with a minor in Southern studies. He called his Blue Raider educational experience awesome.
“I can honestly say that I never had a class that I dreaded going to when it came to the history program,” he said.
As an avid Page fan, Wilkinson felt for many years that Nashville needed to formally recognize itself as her hometown. When he decided to act, he leaned on his MTSU education to complete the rigorous proposal process for the Nashville Historical Commission.
“I had to collect all the (required) facts and ensure that they were properly cited,” Wilkinson said. “I had written many research papers during my time at MTSU, so this came naturally.”
The marker will be placed at Page’s alma mater Hume-Fogg Academic High School with the unveiling planned for the end of this year or the beginning of next.
Wilkinson is organizing a dedication event to mark the occasion and already at work on his second marker proposal.
“It will be for a legendary magician from Nashville who was a superstar back in the 1940s-60s. A friend of mine is also going to produce a documentary chronicling the journey of making that marker happen. It’s exciting stuff for sure!”
MTSU’s dedication to historic preservation
Mary Hoffschwelle, a professor of history who is now associate provost for strategic planning and partnerships, taught the course that inspired Wilkinson so many years ago and praised him for his independent research and work on the Bettie Page historical marker.
“Kudos to him!” Hoffschwelle said.
Hoffschwelle highlighted MTSU’s work on other historical marker projects and dedication to historic preservation through its graduate history programs and the Center for Historic Preservation.
“The Department of History has a Ph.D. program in public history and a public history concentration in its master’s program in which students and faculty have worked on marker projects,” she said. “Additionally, faculty and staff at MTSU’s Center for Historic Preservation teach public history courses and, aided by graduate assistants, work with community members and groups on historical marker projects.”
To learn more about the university’s opportunities in history and historic preservation, visit the Department of History website at https://www.mtsu.edu/history/index.php or the Center for Historic Preservation website at https://www.mtsuhistpres.org.
— Stephanie Barrette (Stephanie.Barrette@mtsu.edu)