James W. Vardaman
November 26, 1928 - January 31, 2018
Dr. James W. Vardaman, 89, passed away on Wednesday, January 31, 2018 in Waco. A Service of Remembrance will be at 11 a.m., Saturday, February 10, at Seventh & James Baptist Church, 602 James Ave., Waco. There will also be a memorial gathering at the President's Suite in McLane Stadium on Friday night from 5:00 to 8:00 p.m., where friends and family are welcome to visit and remember Dr. Vardaman.
Dr. Vardaman was born on November 26, 1928, in Dallas, Texas, where he grew up as the youngest of five children of Daisy and Ephraim Jeremiah Vardaman. In 1945, at sixteen years of age, he enlisted in the U.S. Marines and served in the Philippines as well as on board the Pasadena. His military service provided him an introduction to the wider world, to war and the aftermath of war, to typhoons, to sergeants and their disciplinary techniques, and to fellow enlisted men in the Marines with whom he lived and served. His lifelong regard for friendships made during those years was always specific to the individual. He spoke of fellow Marines warmly by name, state, hometown and pithy remarks that were as fresh in his mind at 89 as they had been when he was 20.He also maintained lifelong regard for those military and government leaders whose values and vision enabled them to conduct themselves by admirable and lofty standards.
Most importantly at that juncture in his life, military service in World War II gave Dr. Vardaman the door through which he walked into higher education--the G.I. Bill. He was grateful forever. Being decommissioned at one minute after midnight on March 18, 1949 at a base in Oklahoma, he then drove all night to Waco, Texas, where he enrolled that day, the last day of registration for the spring quarter at Baylor University. As a distinguished scholar and historian later in life, he reflected on occasion that the most significant moment in his life was seeing his name and grade posted on a small piece of paper by a professor's door in the summer of 1949. He had passed a university course--and was going to be able to become a college student at Baylor.
His intensity for learning and maximizing every day of higher education had begun. Beginning with gratitude for his sister, Ann Miller, who tutored him at Baylor, his love of all things literary and historical grew with each year of extraordinary courses and undergraduate studies. The fine history faculty, particularly Dr. Bruce Thompson, affirmed their student's aptitudes and encouraged him to consider a career as an historian because it would be a perfect fit. It was. He completed Baylor in two years, taking overloads each term. He earned his Master's degree at the University of Minnesota in 1952 and his Ph.D. in British History at Vanderbilt in 1957.
His teaching career included winning the top teaching award at TCU, then earning a special place in the lore of Virginia Military Institute for five years as well as taking wide-ranging opportunities for summer teaching and fellowships, including University of Virginia and University of North Carolina. However, in 1967, when several Baylor professors and Judge McCall contacted him regarding an open position in the History Dept., in 1967, there was no question what would be his next step in academe: He was coming "home" to his alma mater. Here he thrived and received many teaching honors. He was named a Master Teacher in 1993 and elected to Phi Beta Kappa, as an alumnus.
He chaired the Beall-Russell Lectures in the Humanities for nine years, bringing to campus distinguished national and international giants such as Nobel Prize recipient Czeslaw Milosz; the Very Reverend Michael Mayne, dean of Westminster Abbey; A. S. Byatt; Edward Said; Bill Moyers; Robert Haas and many others. He taught in and then directed many international programs for the university, including teaching in Baylor in Vienna and Baylor in London before becoming director of Baylor in the British Isles, a program housed for nearly 20 years within the confines of Westminster Abbey at Westminster School. His international teaching included serving an exchange professor to the Yunnan Nationalities University in Kunming, PRC, in 1984-85 and was followed by a memorable trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway across Russia. He began the semester-long program for Baylor in Maastricht, The Netherlands, in 1995, a program that continues to be a proud feature of Baylor's international programs and draws students and faculty from across the university. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Dr. Vardaman also led many alumni trips across Europe, to South America, and most notably, of course, back to the British Isles and Ireland. His relationship with former students was a great treasure to him, as were his friends and family. Dr. Vardaman concluded his tenured years at Baylor in 2000 after 33 years of teaching and inspiring students to ground their worldviews within the vast narrative of humankind.
At retirement, Dr. Vardaman built a library to contain about 5,000 of his favorite books. He could be found there many hours a day for the past almost two decades. Drawing on his vast knowledge, he was the perfect reader of the great tomes across all times and spaces, countries and civilizations. He often offered up sober details about historical events and personages to his family and close friends, insights that the most learned scholars could possibly have profited from knowing. (One point among many to remember: the Magna Carta was "sealed," not "signed" by King John at Runnymede.)
In 2017 a professorship in the history department was established in Dr. Vardaman's name. As additional tributes have been lifted to Dr. his memory and legacy this week, Michael Livingstone, a former student, has described him as "my earthquake." Another, Dr. Scott Harper, reflected on his professor in terms of the Dylan Thomas poem "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" and speaks for many when he says: "I have never known anyone like Dr. Vardaman who more raged against the dying of the light: the light of enlightenment and education, the light of justice for wrongs committed at every level of society and culture, the light of friendship and love, the light of his own life. He did not go gentle into anything."
Dr. Vardaman was preceded in death by his daughter, Kirsten Vardaman Turner in August of 2014. He is survived by his wife of 39 years, Elizabeth "Betsy" Vardaman; and by his daughters, Bridget Ashmore and Page Cupper and their families.
Memorials may be made to the Dr. James W. Vardaman Endowed Scholarship or the James Vardaman Professorship Fund, One Bear Place #97026, Waco, Texas 76798-2026.
You may sign the online guestbook at www.oakcrestwaco.com.