Last week our community said goodbye to teaching hero Paul T. Armitstead, Baylor University professor emeritus of history. In addition to his celebrated and award-winning 40-plus years of mastery in the classroom and his forward-looking contributions to the life of the university, his kindness and support had a profound and personal impact on my life.
As my very first class upon returning to Baylor in 1995 — what Armitstead mischievously called my “second incarnation” — I found myself in his signature course: History of the American Presidency. Nervously sitting in that classroom in the Tidwell Bible Building on that first Monday morning waiting for a professor to walk in, I wondered about my future. Was this the right decision, coming back to school?
By our second class meeting I knew that I was finally home. He made dead presidents and failed statesmen (and even some vice presidents) come alive. With humor, irony and a genuine affection for his historical characters, he captured my imagination and made me eager to know more. By the end of the semester, I understood what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to be him. His enthusiasm for teaching and interest in students remain benchmarks by which I now measure my own efforts in the classroom.
His passion for American history sprang from his passion for the American Experiment and his devotion to equality and justice. His tales of fallible statesmen were often hilarious, sometimes pathetic and sometimes inspiring, but they also reminded us that our experiment in government by the people required our attention and compassion.
As a teacher, he set demanding standards for his students and, as a result, a good grade in his course represented an accomplishment. Undoubtedly, not every one of his students appreciated the rigor, but few of them could hold it against him. Over the years, I watched and listened to countless former students remember him with special fondness, and I saw so many of them come back to see him year after year. And then their children sought out his class — and so the cycle of learning and growing began again.
He was an inexhaustible fount of knowledge (his “storehouse of useless information” never seemed to run low), but our love for him ran much deeper than merely admiring his skill as a historian. He was a wise friend and an avid booster to those of us who were lucky enough to know him personally. His interest and support steadied us during trying times. His encouragement — always tempered with a pragmatic assessment of the vagaries of teaching on the college level — spurred me to pursue my dream: a career in American history.
I met my wife while we were both student workers in the history department. Our first common bond was a shared devotion to Armitstead. Simultaneously a guiding light and a strong wind at our backs, he served as a role model and cheerleader for the both of us and so many others. For nearly two decades, my mother-in-law has repeatedly inquired about him with a simple but unmistakable reference: How is “the Professor” doing?
Granted, no teacher can be the spark of transformation in every student. Having said that, even as we lovingly called him “Dr. A,” to so many of us he was the professor who opened that mystical portal to a fuller intellectual life. God bless Paul T. Armitstead. His imprint on so many generations of Baylor students represents an extraordinary legacy.
Ashley Cruseturner teaches history at McLennan Community College where he is noted for his own passion for presidential history. Dr. Armitstead, who taught at Baylor from 1961 to 2002, died on Oct. 13 in Waco. He was 84.