16 Things: KU history professor, environmental historian recounts personal history

Donald Worster, distinguished professor emeritus of history at Kansas University, is the author of many books, including biographies of environmental figures John Wesley Powell and John Muir.

Don Worster, a distinguished professor of history at KU and an accomplished environmental historian, took time last week to share 16 things he’s done.

1) Grew up “on the wrong side of the tracks in the wrong parts of two different states.” He was born in Needles, Calif., near the Arizona border, and far from Malibu and Los Angeles. His family then moved to Hutchinson, where his father worked held various jobs on the railroad and picking fruit.

“It gave me so much,” he said. “I loved the great skies and prairies and open spaces.”

2) Read the entire Bible through twice, having grown up in a fundamentalist family.

3) Read the entire works of Charles Darwin, despite having a church member ask him once what he was doing reading that “wicked” book.

4) Admitted he “wasted time” in the pubs while at KU as an undergraduate in the early 1960s, but managed to pick up enough “by osmosis” to get a great education in English and communication. He went on to earn advanced degrees at Yale University.

“The two great institutions of my life are KU, a great public university out here on the Plains, and Yale, a great private university that’s one of the greatest universities in the world.”

5) Protested during the Vietnam War era and got tear-gassed by police in Washington, D.C.

“It was a peaceful demonstration against the war, but I was tear-gassed, along with others,” he said. “So I know what that feels like.”

6) Made a move that’s almost as far as one can move between universities in the United States — from Brandeis University in Boston to the University of Hawaii in Honolulu and back. His wife taught at the same school that President Barack Obama attended.

“It taught me to be less ethnocentric,” he said, as he learned much about both the Asian-American culture as well as the Jewish culture in New York and New England.

7) Helped to create a new kind of history that didn’t exist before called environmental history. While history primarily focused on political decisions, Worster and others created a new focus on the role of energy, the environment and ecology have had on our history.

“Hasn’t the natural world been a powerful influence on society?” he asked. “How could you miss the significance of the soil, the significance of weather and climate and the skies?”

Today, the discipline is taught in most major universities across the nation.

8) Lectured on six continents, and frequently he travels the world to share his expertise. He just returned from Munich, home of a center for environmental history, and will soon travel to China to speak at an environmental history gathering there.

9) Wrote nine books and collaborated on a few more. The topics range from how the Dust Bowl affected the southern Plains to biographies of environmental figures John Muir and John Wesley Powell.

10) Wrote a book that was burned by a university class in Oklahoma in 1979. Worster said the professor of the class told him the students burned it on the lawn after the final exam because they didn’t agree with its criticism of the agribusiness industry. The book on the Dust Bowl era, in addition to winning what Worster called a sort of “Yahoo Award” (after the yahoos who burned the book), also received the 1980 Bancroft Prize from Columbia University for the best book published for the year in American history.

11) Started that book with a quote from Karl Marx, which he said was reflective of his desire to be too provocative in the early part (and to some degree, the later part, too) of his career.

“It was cheeky,” he said of the decision to use the quote. “It was intemperate. It was not necessary. And it cost me a job.”

12) Lost that job opportunity when a dean at the University of Texas flipped open to the quote in his office and offered some choice words about it. The dean later offered the distinguished professorship to a friend of his, Worster said.

13) Served on the board of The Land Institute, an organization in Salina that works to develop sustainable agriculture.

14) Kept a big stack of postcards he received from former students from across the country as they traveled.

15) Received a mention (by name) in a song lyric in some Dust Bowl ballads written by a former student. He still has the CD.

16) Received recognition as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a group that includes prominent researchers (mostly from elite universities on the coasts, Worster said), prominent historical figures and actors. James Earl Jones attended the same ceremony he did, Worster said.

He said he was glad to see the good work being done at public universities in places like Kansas getting recognized.