College of Liberal Arts | Spring 2021

Powered by a passion for history

As one might expect from a conversation with one of Purdue’s most notable lecturers, a theme quickly develops when Randy Roberts discusses his profession.

Now in his 30th year as a Purdue faculty member, Roberts has a passion for the research that informs his work as a historian.

As evidenced by the mountain of biographies bearing his name on the spine, Roberts possesses a passion for writing.

And as thousands of Boilermakers who have passed through his classrooms can attest, Roberts has a passion for standing at the front of a massive, crammed lecture hall and relaying stories about events that shaped our world.

“If you’ve been at it as long as I have, you’ve got to be passionate about what you do,” Roberts said. “If you’re continuing to do your research, if you can’t wait to write every day, then you’ve got to be passionate about it. I always think passion, it rubs over into teaching.”

It also resonates across campus.

Because of his reputation as an educator, Roberts’ trophy case is stocked with some of Purdue’s most notable teaching awards, including the Morrill Award, the Charles B. Murphy Award, and the College of Liberal Arts’ Kenneth Kofmehl Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching Award. But it’s his most recent honor – in January, Roberts was one of 10 faculty members that the Office of the Provost named as a 150th Anniversary Professor – that Roberts describes as “the big one.”

“I guess if I was proud of two things: No. 1, I’m a distinguished professor, and that’s something you get on the basis of your research and scholarship. This one, the 150th Anniversary Professor, is on teaching,” Roberts said. “I’ve always felt that teaching and research absolutely go hand-in-hand, and I think that’s because of some of the teachers I had who were spectacular scholars and researchers.”

That approach has not only influenced the undergrads who left Purdue with a greater understanding of history thanks to Roberts’ teaching. His research and writing also made a direct impact on the study of sports history, helping the field garner respect among serious historians who might once have dismissed its importance.

His reputation in the field and as author of notable biographies like Papa Jack: Jack Johnson and the Era of White Hopes and Jack Dempsey: The Manassa Mauler attracted numerous Ph.D. candidates to Purdue to study under Roberts before launching their own distinguished careers.

“There’s just kind of this family tree of sport historians that Randy has influenced,” said David K. Wiggins, Professor of Sport History at George Mason. “He prepares Ph.D. students very well, and I feel like I can always tell a Randy Roberts student because one of his strengths is telling a good story. He’s a terrific writer, Randy is. He’s a terrific storyteller. And I think his students kind of fall in that ilk. They all write well, they’re all good storytellers. You can see the influence that he’s had on their writing life and academic careers.”

Among Roberts’ former pupils: history professors David Welky at Central Arkansas, Eric Hall at Northern Illinois, Nathan Corzine at Coastal Carolina Community College, and Andrew McGregor at Purdue. There’s Aram Goudsouzian, history department chair at the University of Memphis, and Chris Elzey, Director of Sport and American Culture at George Mason. Last but not least is frequent writing partner Johnny Smith, the Shaw Assistant Professor in Sports, Society, and Technology at Georgia Tech.

Like so many Purdue undergrads who enjoyed Roberts’ classes through the years, those historians learned valuable lessons of their own while working as his teaching assistant. Only in the professors’ case, it wasn’t knowledge alone that they absorbed from Roberts’ lectures. They also learned methods of engaging an audience that they incorporated into their own teaching styles.

“I remember the first time I watched him give a full lecture in a U.S. history survey,” recalled Smith, whose second book co-written with Roberts, A Season in the Sun: The Rise of Mickey Mantle, hit bookshelves in March. “He had to have at least 300, 400 students, and I was one of three or four TAs. I’m sitting in the front row and I’m watching this guy command the room, command the attention of all these late-teens and early 20-somethings. And I thought to myself, ‘I want to lecture like him.’

“Here’s what I saw: I saw someone with relentless energy and enthusiasm, who could fill the space of a giant lecture hall not with his voice, but with his energy. I realized in watching him that he could hold the students’ attention because he knew how to pull them in. He knew how to take history and create this grand narrative where he would make these steps along the way and teach you something.”

By influencing them in subtle ways and with a personal touch – heck, he even served as a groomsman in Smith’s wedding – Roberts’ mentorship helped those TAs develop into successful historians.

“It is not that he attracts talented scholars – lots of professors do that. It is that he impresses his students with his approach to writing and teaching history,” Goudsouzian said. “He develops historians, whether he realizes it or not. If there’s a common coin among his students who are now successful in our own right, it is that we all love what we do. We don’t get bogged down in the academic slog, and we constantly appreciate what we love about being a historian: telling stories, whether in the classroom or on the page. That is thanks to Randy.”

Some historians are strict academicians, typically authoring dense, thoroughly researched material intended for academic audiences. Others lean heavily on a vibrant writing style that better suits the casual reader.

Roberts bridges the gap between the two camps. His books on war, popular culture, or sports can serve as pleasure reading or as traditional history publications that satisfy scholars on the subjects.

“He recognized there are interesting stories to tell that aren’t just stand-alone subjects, but they contribute to understanding the fabric of American history – and sports certainly is very much part of the fabric of our history,” Purdue history department chair R. Douglas Hurt said. “So you can read him if you’re just sort of an armchair buff and you’re interested in this or that and maybe you’ll never read another book on that again, but if you read one of his, you’ll profit and learn from it.

“But academics also use his work all the time because maybe they’re not talking about boxing or basketball or football in their class, but they can use much of his work as examples of social and cultural, political relationships, race, class, how does all of this affect what they really want to do in their class. So there are a lot of pieces that you can mine, I think, very effectively.”

Despite his influence within the profession and among readers, Roberts is at his essence a classroom teacher. He has entertained and informed generations of Purdue grads, enlightening them on the graft of the Gilded Age or on the significance of American boxer Joe Louis’ landmark matches against German Max Schmeling in the 1930s.

Some 30 years after he started at Purdue, Roberts still has a reputation among undergrads as a must-hear lecturer whose popular courses attract students from a broad range of academic disciplines.

“He really holds my attention throughout class, and I think that is because of those two elements: the enthusiasm and the knowledge. I think truly he is at the top,” said Mary Kate Ramker, a senior in visual communications design and student in Roberts’ “History of Sports in America” course this spring. “Some of the other teachers I’ve had that I’ve enjoyed, it’s the same thing. You can tell that they know what they’re talking about and they’re enthusiastic, but I think Randy is just on a whole other level.

“It’s almost intense the way he talks about it that he invokes emotions in the audience, which is crazy because our lecture is at least 100 kids, and no one talks. We’re all just dead set when he walks through.”

Again, Roberts emphasizes that his passion for the material is what strikes the correct note with his pupils. It helps to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the subject matter – and students and

former TAs alike will confirm that he does – but Roberts also regularly reminds himself to seize the moment as he determines how to deliver the knowledge he hopes to impart.

“I think several things help,” Roberts said. “No. 1, I teach great courses. I teach American history, and to me it’s all storytelling – telling the history of the 20th Century of America. It’s great. My most popular course is World War II. I mean, it has every human emotion that you can imagine. It has the best of people, the worst of people. The story is just utterly fascinating.

“I teach the history of sports, which I find really pretty interesting. So that’s part of it. And the awareness, literally every class period, of saying, ‘OK, I’ve got this class period to teach this subject to these students. I’ll never have another chance to teach this subject, this lecture.”

The good news for Purdue students is that they will have many more opportunities to hear those lectures.

With his lengthy list of publications and teaching recognitions won, Roberts would not have much left to cross off a history professor’s bucket list if he viewed his career in such a fashion.

The reason he’s still at it? His work remains his passion.

“I really feel like I’ve lived a privileged life,” Roberts said. “It’s been a privilege to do what I do, to go in a classroom and try to get students excited about something. I can see it when they’re (busily typing what I say) and I can see it on the other end, when they’re on their iPhones and things.

“But I’m not ready to retire yet. I enjoy what I’m doing,” he chuckled. “And now that they gave me this incredible (150th Anniversary Professor) honor, I feel like I’ve got to stay around at least a few more years, I hope.”