MTSU Faculty Spotlight: Louis Kyriakoudes, History

MTSU Faculty Spotlight: Louis Kyriakoudes, History

Dr. Louis Kyriakoudes, director of the Albert Gore Research Center

Today, the Student Voice is meeting up with Dr. Louis Kyriakoudes of the history department and the Albert Gore Research Center. We’re talking college romance, the tobacco industry, and the experience of history through spoken and written records.

Thanks for meeting up with the Voice! First, how did you first get interested in history as a subject?

Well, I had always been into history as a kid, but I didn’t get seriously interested in it as a discipline until I went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I majored in history with the intention that I would later become an attorney. But in the spring of my junior year, I took a course on the history of the old South that required us to write a research paper, and I chose the subject of the history of slavery. To get primary sources for the paper, I went into the Southern Historical Collections, a huge historical archive that they have at UNC. While I was in the archive, I found this diary kept by a man named Moses Curtis. He had come to North Carolina in the early 1830s as a private tutor for a wealthy family, and he kept track of all the things that he saw. Reading that diary was like going back in time; I was sitting there reading this handwritten diary, and here was this man speaking to me through 150 years of history. It was just fascinating, and it got me deeply interested in history. I decided not to go to law school, and instead got my master’s and PhD in history from Vanderbilt.  

What was your college experience like?

Well, it all started with my father, who was an immigrant from Cyprus; he came to New York with his family in 1949 after World War II. I was born and raised in New York, but we moved to North Carolina in my first year of high school, and my father ran a restaurant there, a barbecue place in Wilmington, North Carolina. He worked in the back and my mother worked up front at the register, and I worked there too, three nights a week. It was a very old-school family-run restaurant, and I learned a great deal from that. Then my senior year in high school, I was looking at colleges, and my dad said “You can go to UNC Wilmington; it’s right down the street and you can live at home and save so much money, and you can keep working in the restaurant!” And I said “Well, this place three hours away, Chapel Hill, seems like it fits me better” (laughing) because I did not want to work in the restaurant anymore. So I went to Chapel Hill in the fall of 1981. I had a great time there; I was in a fraternity, active in campus organizations, and I did well in my classes. I always visited my teachers’ office hours, and I made strong relationships with some of my professors, some of which continue to this day. That’s something students should really take advantage of: they need to go visit their professors, especially ones who teach subjects that they’re interested in, and build those relationships. I wrote a great honors’ thesis and there were great professors who gave me direction and mentorship on it, and that helped me to get a fellowship to Vanderbilt for grad school. I had a wonderful time at Vanderbilt too, but the foundation of my education occurred during undergrad at UNC Chapel Hill. I’ve talked to many students who have had the same kind of experience at MTSU; they look at this school as the place where they found their direction in life and their view of the world. And to be part of that, as a professor, is terrific.

What is your favorite college memory?

My favorite college memory is when I met my wife, Lisa. Now this is really, really square, about as square as you get, but we took a class together–the “History of the Old South” course that I mentioned earlier–and because of the seating chart, we ended up sitting next to each other. And when I saw her for the first time, I thought “Wow, this is the most beautiful and interesting person I’ve ever met”. That was my junior year in college, and we’ve been together now for 28 years.

What made you decide to go into teaching?

I love teaching because it’s future-oriented; I love working with a group of people on one subject and collectively trying to make sense of it. I work with students to push a subject forward, and every time I teach a subject, I learn new things myself and help advance my own understanding of the subject. For example, this semester I’m teaching a course on 20th century Southern politics. We use the life of Albert Gore Sr., father of the former vice president, as sort of a thread through which we can understand the course and complexities of Southern politics, beginning around the 1890s with the Populist rebellion and taking it through the 2000 election. I’ve been learning a terrific amount as I prepare for classes, and the students are making powerful insights as well. I may be the leader, but all the students keep the class going forward.

If you could pick one class that you teach for all MTSU students to take, which class would it be and why?

I think it would be my class on the Global Cigarette, which I offered last fall and which I’ll continue to teach in the future. I’ve been studying the history of the cigarette for about fifteen years, and I’ve written some important publications on it. I think all students should take that course, because one of the themes of the class is the deceit of the tobacco industry in latching onto American life with cigarette culture, which they built and exported globally.  Last fall, I had an above-average number of smokers in class, and I think those are the people who really need to take it. I showed them internal documents from the tobacco industry, memos and research and files, and I think seeing those helped some of them make new attempts to quit. So that class is probably the one I’d have all students at MTSU take.

You’re the current director of the Albert Gore Research Center, and have been for two years! Can you tell us some more about the center and what it does?

Yes! So the Albert Gore Research Center is named for Albert Gore Sr., who was a representative in the House and later a Senator, and also the father of the former Vice President. We have the documents he created that passed through his office, and scholars come from all over the world to study them. That’s our core collection, but we have five other collections from members of Congress who represented Middle Tennessee. We also have a huge amount of material documenting the social and economic history of Middle Tennessee. We are a historical archive at a university that’s engaged in teaching and education, so our first mission is to integrate students into our activities here. I highly encourage students to get involved with us. We regularly have student interns and volunteers who work with these sources to help us find out what’s in them, categorize them, and take care of them for the future. I encourage students to contact me if they’re interested in doing an independent study or internship as part of their education, or even if they just want to visit. We’re happy to show them around! In many ways, I seek to give students the experience I had: when I first visited that archive and opened that diary from a man who had lived 150 years before me, that sense of discovery, transportation back to the past…I want students here to have those same experiences.

What is one of the most interesting documents you’ve ever investigated?

I was doing research for my dissertation at the Tennessee State Library archives in downtown Nashville, and the YWCA has a collection of papers there, a series of case files of women from 100 years ago who had migrated to Nashville from the countryside, and had come to the YWCA for help. And there were narratives of the struggles that women in this city had faced in the 19-teens as they tried to make their way. Some worked in textile mills that used to be near downtown Nashville, others working in offices, and some of them had some really hard-luck stories about their lives in the countryside. These were very meaningful to me; they were painful stories, but I wrote about them. I wrote about how these situations fit into larger patterns of historical change and migration, and how these young women were coming to Nashville as a form of escape. We sometimes think of big cities as things that  trap people and create a kind of misery. There’s a strong anti-urban bias in American thought. But what I learned from these women’s experiences was that things could be pretty bad out in the country, in the more rural areas within Middle Tennessee where there was a lot of poverty and hardship. Coming to the city was a step up and an opportunity for these women, a positive change in their lives. I would consider those documents some of the most interesting and important ones that I’ve ever consulted.

What are some of the coolest research projects you’ve conducted?

In 2012, I worked on a veterans oral history initiative where we tried to find every surviving WWII veteran in Mississippi and interview them, and that was an exciting project. We also collected oral histories of veterans of other wars: Korea, Vietnam, and the Iraqi War. My presentation about the project asked the question, “What can we learn from the stories of veterans”? And the answer is that we can learn a lot, because these oral histories give us a taste of the experience of war. The veterans are the ones who were there on the ground, and they can help us understand war in a much more personal way. We also did a Civil Rights oral history project, as well as a project about people who were victimized by the BP oil spill off the Gulf Coast.

What was one of the most meaningful interviews you conducted for an oral history project?  

In 2009, I interviewed a man named Like Patterson, a WWII veteran who hadn’t actually fought in WWII. Because of his age, he had enlisted in the spring of 1945, and they shipped him for training over to the Philippines, which had just been liberated from Japanese occupation. He said in the summer of 1945, they were learning how to climb up a mountain and shoot while hanging off a rope. Then he talked about learning of the atomic bomb attack on Japan and the subsequent surrender. He said his commanding officer told him “The war’s over; you were training to be part of the first wave of the invasion of Japan, which would’ve happened this fall, but you won’t have to go through that because we’re estimating a 75% casualty rate”. And then Mr. Patterson just stops–and this is a guy in his mid-80s–he starts to quietly weep. And he says “All those women and children and innocent people died in those cities. But if that had not happened, I am sure that everything I’ve done with my life wouldn’t have happened either.”

   And he had no answer. He didn’t say “I’m glad we dropped the bomb” or “I wish we hadn’t”, he just had no answer. He simply saw that fundamental contradiction, that dilemma that is war, and he had no resolution to it. He just started to cry. I turned off the recording machine, and his son Randy said “Dad, you never told us that story”. This was something he had kept inside himself for a long time, and for which he had no resolution. Eventually he regained his composure and we went on with the interview, but that moment where he sat there and faced that insoluble contradiction…that impacted me the most. I keep that one in my mind all the time.