Summer 2000
Vol. 17 No. 2
Publication Number:
USPS 244-800


FAQ: Samford

Heading to Graduate School with a Fistful of Scholarship Dollars

Viewpoints: Berry and Flynt

Unclaimed Bargains

Miss Alabama 2000

Campus News
Samford, WMU Name Vaughn Director of Christian Women's Leadership Center

Determined Nurse Bell Keeps Clinic Open, Studies Business Side with Stanley Scholarship

Leadership for a Changing World: Rice Suggests Formula for Success

Samford's Ida V. Moffett School of Nursing Received CCNE Accreditation for Bachelor's, Master's Programs

'Burst of New Energy upon the Sciences'

Major Gift to Athletics

Bulldogs Plan to Exercise Option Again in 2000

Men's Team Captures First TAAC Track Title

News Briefs
Bill Mathews Named VP as Laverne Farmer Retires

Interior Design Gets FIDER Accreditation

Translation Prompts Scholarship Fund

Other Stories
Bobby Bowden Day
Faculty Accolades
Class Notes
In Memoriam


Summer 2000

Samford University conferred honorary doctorates on author Wendell E. Berry and historian J. Wayne Flynt during Commencement May 20. Seasons interviewed the two for Viewpoints.

Samford University conferred honorary doctorates on author Wendell E. Berry and historian J. Wayne Flynt during Commencement May 20. Seasons interviewed the two for Viewpoints.

Samford University President Thomas E. Corts, left, chats with honorary degree recipients Wayne Flynt, center, and Wendell Berry at Commencement.

Wendell E. Berry

The New York Times described Wendell Berry as "the prophet of rural America." In 28 volumes of fiction and nonfiction and another 15 books of poetry, he has sought to interpret an America in danger of being forgotten in today's consumerist culture. Many of Berry's novels are set in the fictional town of Port William, Ky., which is not unlike his actual home of Port Royal, Ky., where he lives on a small farm. A former University of Kentucky creative writing teacher, Berry received the Doctor of Literature degree. He was recognized for "his efforts to protect an 'endangered species,'" America's small farmers and their families.

You have written extensively of the encroachment of agribusiness on the small, independent farmer. Is there hope this trend might change?
Agribusiness practices the totalitarian economics of corporate industrialism. It is undemocratic. It ignores the processes and integrities by which natural systems and human communities perpetuate themselves. It is heavily dependent on "cheap" fossil fuels, toxic chemicals and other pollutants. Lots of people understand this and are working for change. So of course there is hope.

What is America losing if it does not?
It is losing (it has nearly lost) its farm population and its small, diversified family farms. It is losing topsoil and soil health. It is losing the health, ecological integrity and beauty of its economic landscapes. It is losing the quality and the natural abundance of its water supply. It is losing its ability to produce healthful food in local abundance.

What can be done to preserve the place of the small farmer in America?
Urban and rural neighbors need to make a common cause of building or rebuilding local economies, starting with food and going on to other rural products such as fiber and timber. Such local economies would have the ability to preserve the beauty, health and productivity of the local countryside, as well as the livelihoods of local farmers. They would hold the promise of justice to consumers and producers alike. They would rest on the principle of neighborhood rather than competition.

Tell us something of your farm and your involvement in working it.
Our farm here is small, rough and steep, in several respects marginal. Most of the work is done with draft horses. We grow trees and grass and keep a small flock of Border Cheviot sheep. We produce as much as we can of our own food, and we warm ourselves mostly with firewood from our own trees.

Which came first: your love of the land or your love of writing?
Love of land. I knew a good deal about farming before I knew the alphabet.
What factors encouraged you in your writing? What has made you so productive?
My mother loved books. So, as a result, do I. I had some good teachers, in and out of school. I found good friends who consented to be my critics. I have been productive, I suppose, because I've seen a lot of work that I wanted to do.

You are a novelist, poet and essayist, having published numerous volumes in each genre. How do these complement each other? Are you now more comfortable in any one of the three?
Different tools for different jobs. Obviously, what you learn in one kind of work can help you in another. The proper business of a writer is not to be comfortable in any genre.

Your literary works have received some 20 awards. Do you have favorites? Why?
A writer who wants to stay alive had better not think too much about awards, which necessarily have to do with finished work. The work to be interested in is the unfinished. The awards that have meant the most to me are the ones that have come from nearest home.

What project(s) are you working on now?
Right now, I'm trying to get my mail answered and my pastures mowed.

Do you feel any other writers have influenced you?
What about the Vanderbilt Agrarians of the 1930s?

You can learn to write only from writers and from writing. I have probably uncountable debts to other writers, from Homer and the authors of the Bible to several of my contemporaries. I owe a debt to the Vanderbilt Agrarians, and this I have acknowledged in an essay, "Still Standing," in the Oxford American (Jan.­Feb. 1999).

(Editor's Note: The Vanderbilt Agrarians were a group of academics who wrote a series of essays defending a traditional culture with an agricultural economic base which they saw threatened by a modern urban-industrial society. They included Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson and others. Their essays were published in a book, I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition.)

As a teacher of writing for more than 25 years, what overriding theme(s) or technique(s) did you stress?
Get the diction, grammar and syntax right. Know what you're talking about. Do justice to the subject. Be as clear and plain as you can.

I understand you write longhand on a yellow legal pad. Any plans to upgrade?
What do you mean by "upgrade"?
There is no better way to put words in line-no way to make it easy. A computer is no better than a pencil. Or (I guess) vice versa. I use a pencil because it is cheap and quiet and portable. Also, I dislike paying money to computer companies for machines that become obsolete even before they break down. A pencil doesn't become obsolete or break down; it has the decency simply to wear out.

Dr. J. Wayne Flynt

Distinguished University Professor at Auburn University and a 1961 Samford graduate, Dr. Flynt is the award-winning author of 10 books on Southern political history, poverty and religion. His 1990 book, Poor But Proud, won the Lillian Smith Award for Non-Fiction, presented by the Southern Regional Council, and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Flynt received the Doctor of Humane Letters degree. He was described as "a teacher, scholar and writer whose high-wattage light has beamed into the darkness surrounding issues of poverty, race, education and state government."

You have spoken in favor of a new constitution for Alabama. What will it take to get one? A new state constitution will not result from the vision or leadership of Alabama's political elite. In fact, that elite-driven by the special interests that dominated the 1901 constitutional convention and have since controlled Alabama politics-have defeated numerous attempts to revise the antiquated and now largely unworkable document. The initiative for change will have to come from modernizers within the business, education and civic communities who realize how badly hobbled the state is by the restrictions, racism and lack of home rule embodied in the 1901 document.

Do you believe it will happen?
Yes, I believe Alabamians will revise the state constitution, either because of a crisis that causes a meltdown in state government or because urban areas are simply so hamstrung they can no longer function in a modern world.

What is the most important issue facing Alabama today? Why?
I'd like to link this question to spiritual issues, although I doubt that is the way Alabamians see it. We are caught up in a highly material culture that defines every part of our identity. Our national philosophy ought to be not "In God We Trust" but "I shop; therefore I am." The best evidence of this materialism in public affairs is the obsession with keeping our taxes the lowest in the nation. Not justice. Not fair treatment of the poor. Not quality education for all children, or a decent penal system, or humane conditions in nursing homes or mental institutions, or adequately funded public safety departments. All that matters to most of us is whether we can afford the latest gas-guzzling sports utility vehicle or upgrade for a pricier house in a more prestigious suburb. A good question for all of us to consider is: How and where would Jesus live if he returned to earth to live in Alabama, and what issues would attract his attention?

Are recent economic gains (Mercedes, Honda, Boeing) signs that Alabama might be breaking its cycle of poverty?
Recent business and industrial acquisitions are a tribute to a new, more sophisticated economic development strategy. For a century-and-a-half, Alabama touted cheap, unskilled, nonunion labor and a variety of state tax incentives. And the result was a revolving door by which exploitive industry entered the state to acquire the benefits and left when some other state or country offered cheaper labor or more favorable tax exemptions. Now many development people understand the connection between good schools, an educated work force and quality economic development.

Put differently, economic growth, i.e., acquiring a new plant, no matter how much it pollutes the water supply or exploits human and natural resources, may actually be bad for the state. It is quite different from economic development, which may include developing excellent research universities that spin off lots of high-tech businesses or quality foreign language programs that develop heightened cultural awareness in the context of a globalized economy.

At one time, historians said the South was different from the rest of the nation because it had experienced defeat. Was that true or an oversimplification? Does the South remain different? In what ways?
The South remains different from other regions, but perhaps the differences are now shaped more by distinctive opinions and attitudes rather than by keen memory of defeat or a separate past. In some ways, the South has converged with the nation because of the Americanization of the South due to federal imposition of Civil Rights laws that broke down segregation and the collapse of one-party politics. In other ways, convergence results from the Southernization of America with the post-George Wallace national political conservatism and its dominance by Southern politicians; the national appeal of Southern-style evangelical and Pentecostal religion; the attraction of arms and a frontier kind of lifestyle; the popularity of southern cultural exports from NASCAR racing to country music.

Whereas Southern distinctiveness is shrinking (it no longer includes most of Florida, the D.C. suburbs of Virginia, or parts of the Southwest), and it is changing (white Southerners are no more likely now to resist integrated schools than white non-Southerners)-it still does exist.

What stands out in your mind about your academic experience as a Samford student?
I will always love Samford for exposing me to a remarkable faculty who placed highest priority on undergraduate teaching. What good is it to have a Nobel-winning person on the faculty if students have no access to her? At Howard College, a teaching faculty that could have been embittered by low salaries, lack of appreciation and killing teaching loads challenged me to write, think, push myself and explore the world around me in unfamiliar ways. I wrote more than a dozen major research papers compared to none required of my best friend in graduate school at the University of Texas. Professors such as W. T. Edwards, David Vess, George V. Irons, Hugh C. Bailey, Al Yeomans, Sam Mitchell, Bob Mashburn and Mabry Lunceford influenced not only my writing and thinking, but my entire philosophy of life. And in classes where I felt entirely inadequate and unprepared, professors like Sanders Bishop patiently tutored me to competence, even when excellence was far beyond my grasp.

Many other fellow Florida State graduate students were better prepared in terms of specific knowledge than was I. But none had more experience writing or organizing ideas in deductive and inductive reasoning. I still find myself using insights from Edwards and Lunceford every week when I teach my Sunday School class or from Vess and Bailey when I lecture my history classes. And anyone who ever debated for Al Yeomans will testify to the monumental imprint he made on each of us, more because of relationships and his values than because of win-loss records or topics discussed.

Your books have received at least 13 awards. Do you have a favorite, or favorites, among them? Why?
The award I treasure most is the Lillian Smith Award for Non-Fiction given by the Southern Regional Council. As the oldest book award in the South, it is named for a woman whose courage, religious values and vision I greatly admire. Previous awardees have included historians such as C. Vann Woodward, Paul Gaston and others whose historical writing has been wedded to concerns for social justice and civic righteousness. It is a great honor to be included in such company. And the book that was honored, Poor But Proud, is my favorite book and the one that most nearly tells the story of my own family.

What feedback do you get from readers of your newspaper Opinion Page articles?
One reason I so much enjoy writing op-ed columns is that one uses writing skills totally different from historical composition. I have long admired the best newspaper journalists for their communication skills. Many of them have become first-rate historians, even without formal training. The challenge to compact a complex issue into a predetermined space, the economy of words this requires, the use of simple words and well-structured ideas, is scintillating to me. And best of all are the follow-up letters to the editor or directly to me after such a column. I have entire files of letters from readers, many hostile and argumentative, others supportive and laudatory. It is feedback third only to undergraduate student evaluations and letters from former students in my hierarchy of ego gratification.

Which is more important: college football or fishing?
Fishing is far more important than football, especially if done right. I will always owe the greatest debt of gratitude to Samford history colleague James S. Brown, who is not only one of the brightest people I have ever known and one of the finest teachers, but is also the person who taught me the joy of creek fishing. The formula is simple: Find a small Appalachian river or creek. Seine your own bait. Walk in the creek if possible. If not, use a canoe. Never fish a lake. Never ride in a boat with a motor.