‘There is no excuse for history to be boring’
By Jeff Herndon
Most people think history is about the wars, kings and presidents. Dr. Jay Price, the chair of Wichita State University’s history department and director of the university’s public history program, disagrees. He says history is about so much more than just those monumental figures.
“I’m always fascinated by the stories that are hidden in plain sight,” Price said. “I’m part of a movement in history called social history. I’m interested in the broader trends. It’s less on individual figures and more on broad movements of people.”
Being both an academic and a public historian has led Price to research a wide range of topics. As an academic, he studies and teaches on an array of topics from the typical U.S. history class to religion in America and the history of American cities. His position as a public historian has also involved him in an eclectic variety of subjects, from the cattle trail era to the oil boom in El Dorado to the legacy of aircraft plants in Wichita, just to name a few. It’s safe to say that studying history has consumed him, and that’s just fine with him.
“The boundary between job and personal interest is sort of blurred. It’s not like I punch a clock, then go home and do X, Y, Z. It sort of is all the same thing,” he said.
Price developed a love of history early in life. Instead of reading him bedtime stories as a young child, his grandparents would tell him what life was like when they were kids. His grandfather had served in World War II and was part of the D-Day invasion of Normandy, so there were plenty of stories to be told. Price jokes that he was more interested in the stories of what took place on the troopship than anything else.
It wasn’t just his grandparents who influenced his love of history, though. As with most, a teacher had an impact on his life and his career choice.
“I had a really fantastic social studies teacher, Mr. Kermit Hill, and (I decided) this was definitely a direction I wanted to go,” Price said. “It was fascinating. It is about story, or it really should be. Mr. Hill would have us march in formation and he would teach us about that. He would have us do games that would help us think through a subject. That was a lot of fun.”
The fun of Mr. Hill’s class propagated into Price’s presentation style, though Price utilizes a bit of theater instead of group activities. As he espoused on the influence railroads had on the Chisholm Trail and the cattle drive era in one of Symphony in the Flint Hills’ education tents, the crowd routinely chuckled at Price’s animated gestures and when he employed different voices while reading quotes.
“There is no excuse for history to be boring,” Price said. To keep it from becoming so, he almost never stands behind podium to present and occasionally even injects a small bit of period costuming into his talks.
Christy Davis, director of Symphony in the Flint Hills, Inc., and a former employee of the Kansas Historical Society, has worked routinely with Price in various settings.
“I smile when I spot Dr. Price in his kilt,” she said. “He is a welcome bundle of energy.”
Price has leveraged that energy and his boundless desire to see people in their natural settings to become an expert on a wide variety of topics. As a teen and young adult, his interest was originally in the late 19th century. More recently, though, his area of focus has turned to post-war American society. He has published books on many other topics, as well. He has studied and written on the oil boom in El Dorado, the Cherokee outlets, the Lebanese community in Wichita and religious architecture in post-war America, and this list doesn’t even cover them all.
His passion for each subject becomes evident when asked which book was his favorite to write. His response bounced from “the monograph I did on religious architectures” to his most recent book, Temples for a Modern God, to two of his photo history books, Kansas: In the Heart of Tornado Alley and Wichita’s Lebanese Heritage (Images of America). Why?
“It was fun to get into the community and get a sense of how people interact,” he said. Elaborating specifically about his book on the Lebanese community in Wichita, he quipped, “Plus, they have great food and that never hurts.”
“It is up to the historian to help the members of larger society tell their many stories.”
When it comes to historical topics, Price’s one true love is architecture. Until it’s not.
“I definitely love the architecture side. It’s something I enjoy doing. And I love studying religion, too. I say I teach to support my religion habit. I love studying the intersection of architecture and religion,” he finally concludes.
To use one of his own words, it is the intersection of his deep desire to learn all aspects of a subject and his care for people – for society as a whole – that makes his participation in projects and programs highly sought.
“He is obviously very passionate about his projects, his topics of interest and his students,” Davis said. “He is very generous with his time.”
Branching out yet again, one of Price’s current projects is studying the history of rock music in Wichita. Even though his taste in music varies from the world of rock — his favorite instruments are the bagpipe and accordion, driving his musical preference toward Celtic and folk metal — the aspiration to study groups of people in their everyday environments and hear their stories has guided him there.
“What does the world look like to them? It’s the groups and the people and the movements that aren’t talked about as much but they’ve always been there. It’s the ‘Oh yeah, we have that’. That is what fascinates me.”
Hearing a Jay Price lecture is something most consider a special treat. Just don’t ask him to sing.
“I remember one time I was doing some research and I was staying at a monastery. I decided to join the monks one evening and they told me the abbot wanted to talk to me. He said, ‘Please stop singing, you’re throwing the monks off key.'”