Late Tennessee Tech Professor Offers Final Lesson With Book

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The life of a beloved Tennessee Tech University professor continues to inspire and teach new lessons nearly two years after his passing thanks to a posthumously released anthology published by the University of Tennessee Press.

“Tennessee’s Experience During the First World War” is a collection of fourteen essays compiled and edited by Tech history professor Michael “Birdie” Birdwell before his passing in March 2022 following a 15-year battle with cancer. Topics range from the accounts of soldiers to the intricate intersections of politics, agribusiness and the significant contributions of African Americans to the war effort.

A pillar of the Upper Cumberland, Birdwell served at Tech for more than 20 years and received numerous accolades, including the university’s General Education Award for Outstanding Teaching in 2015 and the Caplenor Award, Tech’s highest honor for research, in 2016.

Birdwell penned two chapters of the book himself while turning to trusted friends and local experts for the others. Contributors include Tech colleagues such as Troy Smith, associate professor of history, George Webb, professor emeritus of history, and Laura Clemons, a local writer and former staff member, among others.

It’s a volume that was nearly a decade in the making, and that may have never seen the light of day if not for the efforts of those closest to the late professor.

Following Birdwell’s passing, Smith worked alongside Jeff Roberts, history professor and interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Tech, to pore over Birdwell’s research and find ways to carry it across the finish line.

“When he passed away, this book had been on the cusp of publication for a while but had never made it across the threshold,” explained Smith. “His influence is felt even in the things he didn’t write himself. He lived and breathed World War I, and he also lived and breathed Tennessee, so it’s a perfect combination.”

Roberts recalled reading Birdwell’s correspondence with several of the authors while trying to piece together the anthology as Birdwell would have wanted, a process he described as an “emotional rollercoaster.”

“Just seeing the communication he had engaged in reinforced the amount of work he put into it,” said Roberts. “His hard work showed through, and his friendships showed through in a lot of heartfelt exchanges. It was cathartic. Joyous at times and sad at times. Writing the book’s introduction seemed the least I could do.”

Roberts and Smith hope that the book will not only better inform readers about Tennessee’s history during one of the seminal events of the 20th century – a topic on which Birdwell was one of the nation’s foremost experts, including serving as chair of the Tennessee Great War Commission – but will also be a fitting tribute to a sorely missed colleague and friend.

“Dr. Birdwell was a profound influence on me, intellectually and professionally but also personally. He was one of the best friends I’ve had in my life,” said Smith. “Some people are father figures, and I had father figures in the department, but he was always my big brother. I was able to tell him that the last time I saw him.”

Roberts also thanked the University of Tennessee Press for supporting Birdwell’s research and shepherding the book through an unconventional final drafting and editing process, ensuring that the late professor’s meticulous work would not be lost to history.

Roberts, Smith and other Tech faculty are planning a special event to promote the book’s release. They hope to host the gathering in March to commemorate both Birdwell’s March 8 birthday and the anniversary of his passing.

“Tennessee’s Experience During the First World War” is available for purchase from the University of Tennessee Press at www.utpress.org, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other booksellers.