and former students are remembering the late Dr. John Gonzales,
a retired distinguished professor of history at The University of
Southern Mississippi, for his boundless generosity and tireless
devotion to the university community he served for more than half
Gonzales died Aug. 27 at Hattiesburg’s
Forrest General Hospital after a lengthy illness. He was 80.
A memorial service will be held Sunday, Sept.
18, at 3 p.m. at University Baptist Church in Hattiesburg, located
at 3200 West Arlington Loop. A private committal service will be
held at Prairieville Cemetery in Gonzales, La., on Friday, Sept.
Gonzales earned his undergraduate and master’s
degrees from Louisiana State University and a doctorate from the
University of North Carolina. He joined the then Mississippi Southern
College faculty in 1945 and taught at the university for the next
54 years, making him the longest serving faculty member in Southern
In addition to his teaching duties, he served
for many years as editor of the Journal of Mississippi History and
played a key role in the revival of the Mississippi Historical Society
while also serving as its president.
Southern Miss history professor Dr. William
Scarborough said Gonzales eschewed material wealth, preferring to
focus on his profession and love of history. “He lived the
spartan life in a simple apartment across from the campus - never
owned a car, never had a family,” Scarborough said. “He
would get up in the morning, stop at the IHOP (International House
of Pancakes) to have breakfast, and then walk across the street
to campus to work.
“His whole life was wrapped around the
university. He was a master teacher, a forceful, inspiring lecturer,
and I know generations of former students remember him favorably.
He was also a congenial colleague who was always concerned with
how each of us was doing.”
“He was always kind and helpful to junior
faculty,” said Dr. Chuck Bolton, former chair of the Southern
Miss Department of History and now chair of the history department
at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. “I remember
one time asking him about a book I was looking for, and he went
to his office, which was cluttered from floor to ceiling with books,
papers, old exams, etc., and he somehow immediately produced the
book and then gave it to me.
“His whole life was dedicated to The
University of Southern Mississippi and especially to the Department
of History and its students. He was a credit to the historical profession
and a faculty member the likes of which USM will never likely see
again. I was honored to know him.”
Gonzales taught two of the Southern Miss Department
of History’s retired faculty members and one current history
professor at the university, including Drs. Ken McCarty, Neil McMillen
and Andrew Wiest. Southern Miss President Dr. Shelby Thames and
Southern Miss President Emeritus Dr. Aubrey K. Lucas were also former
students of Gonzales.
Describing Gonzales as “one of the most
gentle, caring, unassuming and generous men I have ever known,”
McCarty estimated that Gonzales taught more than 20,000 students
in his Southern Miss career. “He influenced me in my decision
to be a history professor, and he influenced countless others to
choose history as a profession,” McCarty said.
“But we learned more than history from
him. He also taught us that we ought to remember that a university
is for students and teaching them is our number one priority, that
we ought to love and care for our students. He prided himself on
being civil in an increasingly uncivil world, and he was never too
busy to give freely of his time to his or anyone’s students.”
Thames said that Gonzales will continue to
live on in the hearts and minds of his former students, friends
and colleagues. “I am saddened to learn that Southern Miss
has lost one of its most staunch supporters and beloved professors,”
Thames said. “While inspiring students and his passion for
teaching were his trademarks, Dr. Gonzales also made major contributions
to the historical research of the South, and Mississippi in particular.
“I’m very proud to have known Dr.
Gonzales, and those of us who knew him will always recall and cherish
his soft-spoken manner and loyalty to this university. We will always
be thankful for his memory.”
Lucas praised Gonzales for his many years of
service to Southern Miss. “He devoted his life to USM, where
he taught two and three generations of USM families,” he said.
“We have lost a dear friend and a valuable source of university
history,” Lucas said.
Wiest recalls Gonzales stopping by his office
to visit after Wiest returned to Southern Miss to join the history
department’s faculty. “I will always remember how, as
a young faculty member, he would come by my office to check on me
to make certain that I was doing well -- referring to me and others
in a grandfatherly way as 'hon.' He was the embodiment of what is
good and decent in academia.”
Married and with a new baby and strapped for
cash, then Southern Miss graduate student Neil McMillen remembers
being bowled over by Gonzales’ generosity when, out of the
blue, he gave McMillen the money to pay his thesis fee for graduation.
“He said, ‘Have you got any money?’
and I said no, and he just reached into his pocket and handed it
to me, without me even asking for it,” McMillen said.
“It’s important to know that he
took his students seriously as people and helped them out more than
in just the classroom. He was a remarkable man – a real gentleman
of the old school.”
Gonzales made certain that he could continue
helping students beyond the end of his life when in 2001 he bequeathed
the majority of his savings to the university’s history programs,
the largest donation ever made at Southern Miss by a former faculty
Dr. Phyllis Jestice, current chair of the Southern
Miss Department of History, said the funds will augment the John
E. Gonzales Endowment in History, established in 1994 by many of
his former students to provide scholarships for history graduate
and undergraduate students.
In June 2000, Southern Miss recognized Gonzales’
many years of service by naming the auditorium in the Liberal Arts
Building the John E. Gonzales Auditorium.
“If there’s one thing I look back
on with fondness, it’s my teaching,” Gonzales said at
the ceremony announcing his donation. “I’d just like
to be remembered as a good teacher.”
Though he never married or had children, his
Southern Miss family filled that void, said former colleague and
retired history professor Orazio Ciccarelli. “Even as his
health failed him, he remembered the names, achievements and peculiarities
of many of his former students, who were a major source of pride
and contentment for him,” Ciccarelli said.
“So, while we mourn his passing, we celebrate
his full, meaningful and rich life.”
To contribute to the John E. Gonzales Endowment
in History, contact the USM Foundation at Box 10026, Hattiesburg,
MS 39406-0001 (phone 601-266-5602) or the USM Department of History,
Box 5047, Hattiesburg, MS 39406-0001 (phone 601-266-4333).