University of Memphis Magazine
Blasts from the Past
Spring 12 Features



SPRING 2012 HOME PAGE

Earning His Stripes
Walkin' in Memphis
Class of His Own
Pieces of Home
Blasts from the Past


Make it your Biz
Virtual Symphony
Lambuth Campus enrollment
100 Women
Planting Seeds
Johnson leaves impact
Sherrod's feats
Blending the Blues
'Up-and-down' Career Ride
Blasts from the Past

A unique oral history project by Professor Charles Crawford uncovers little known facts about the University of Memphis, ancedotes that may make you “shake, rattle and roll.”

By Laura Fenton

No one recognized the dark-haired man standing next to Mayor Frank Tobey and University of Memphis President Millard Smith at the weekly faculty meeting. No men swarmed for autographs. No women screamed or cried.

The guest performer, dressed in a leather jacket and small leather biker cap, moved to the microphone in the Administration Building auditorium and settled his guitar.

After the guest artist sang "Blue Moon of Kentucky," former U of M Vice President Victor Feisal (BS ’58) leaned to the biology professor sitting next to him.

"The boy’s going to starve to death because he can’t sing," Feisal said.

The guest performer was Elvis Presley.

"As you well know, I was wrong," says Feisal, as he recalled that day in the mid-1950s during a recent campus visit.

Feisal’s anecdote is one of the fascinating stories unearthed from an array of interviews conducted with U of M students, faculty, staff and friends of the University for a unique oral history project developed by Dr. Charles Crawford, director of the U of M Oral History Research Office.

Victor Feisal, former U of M vice president, mentioned a little-known Elvis and U of M connection that is now a part of the University’s archived collection of oral histories from its first 100 years. Feisal is pictured in the same campus auditorium where Elvis performed more than 50 years ago.
Victor Feisal, former U of M vice president, mentioned a little-known Elvis and U of M connection that is now a part of the University’s archived collection of oral histories from its first 100 years. Feisal is pictured in the same campus auditorium where Elvis performed more than 50 years ago.

Every interview for the project by Crawford and his assistants centers around one theme: gathering candid, honest and often captivating accounts of the U of M’s first 100 years.

"A lot of things are a matter of record," Crawford says. "We want to know everything about the University from their memories."

Interviewees discussed their time at the U of M, ranging from the look of the campus and how it has changed, to the courses they took.

More than 50 interviews have been recorded since the project began this past year. Most of the interviews on file currently are from the older generation of Tigers.

Oral histories can only go back in time as far as the human mind remembers. Capturing the stories must happen quickly.

"We’re losing them," says Crawford, who has taught at the U of M since 1962.

"They’re the kind of people you need to get to quickly when you can. You can interview people as long as they live, if their health is good and their memory is good."

The first person to participate in the project, albeit unintentionally, was Ernest Ball (NS ’19, BS ’26), former superintendent of Memphis City Schools for 21 years, and for whom E.C. Ball Hall is named. His interview, conducted in 1987, was a general intake because Crawford believed Ball’s story would have an important place in the archives one day.

"Ernest Ball was sitting on the steps of the Administration Building in 1912, waiting for the doors to open," Crawford says. "He was one of the first students here. He died several years after I interviewed him."

In revealing a much simpler time, Ball said in his interview that "the boys" would serenade "all the neighbors up and down the street" along Patterson Avenue, particularly paying attention to one woman who would give them cake after they sang.

Another interviewee, Ralph Prater, was a member of the "Memphis State Eight," the first African-American students to attend the U of M in 1959.

In his interview, Prater recalled that in his classes or at tables in the library that students didn’t want to sit by him. Instead of bemoaning his isolation, he chose to think positively.

Oral histories from all Memphis State Eight members are a part of the oral history collection. The Memphis State Eight, left to right: (front row) Bertha Rogers Looney, Marvis LaVerne Kneeland Jones, Rose Blakney-Love and Sammie Burnett-Johnson; (back row) John Simpson, Eleanor Gandy, Ralph Prater and Luther McClellan.
Oral histories from all Memphis State Eight members are a part of the oral history collection. The Memphis State Eight, left to right: (front row) Bertha Rogers Looney, Marvis LaVerne Kneeland Jones, Rose Blakney-Love and Sammie Burnett-Johnson; (back row) John Simpson, Eleanor Gandy, Ralph Prater and Luther McClellan.

"I would literally smile to myself because I would at least have the entire table to spread out my books," Prater said. 

"Everything I did was with an eye toward trying to make things
a wee bit easier for those African-American students who would be following us," he told his interviewer. "The good news is that is not the case today. When we realize that things are so improved at the University today, it just makes what we all went through worth it."

Another Memphis State Eight member, Eleanor Gandy (BS ’63, MEd ’66), said in her interview she asked for enrollment information only as joke because she thought the school wasn’t available to blacks. "I didn’t take it too seriously because it seemed like a long way away from them letting us go to Memphis State."

Overcoming slight nervousness about the scope of the project, participants like Allie Prescott (BA ’69, JD ’72), current Alumni Association president, were eased by the informality of conversations with Crawford.

"It was kind of daunting, quite honestly, the thought that someone might in 100 years read the words that he and I were sharing with each other that day," Prescott says. "The thought of it made it seem very important, and therefore seemed to be an honor to be asked to participate."

As a pitcher and an occasional first baseman for the Tigers all four years of his undergraduate career, Prescott attended on a baseball scholarship in the late 1960s. He lived at home with his parents because the men’s athletic dorm, Robison Hall, did not have enough space for all the male athletes.

"There really wasn’t a spot in the dorms back then," Prescott said during his interview. "The dorms weren’t that large and could hardly handle the football players — the basketball players would have apartments."

His scholarship covered tuition and books, plus a cafeteria meal card that he used for lunches.

Baseball also dictated when he could take classes in the fall semesters. Prescott recalled that then-coach Al Brown required the team to attend 2 p.m. practice, meaning any class around that time was off-limits.

Allie Prescott, current Alumni Association president, recalled balancing classes and playing for the U of M baseball team. (Right) Dr. Charles Crawford, director of the Oral History Research Office, plans to collect oral history conversations from 100 men and women about the University’s history before the conclusion of 2012.
Allie Prescott, current Alumni Association president, recalled balancing classes and playing for the U of M baseball team. (Right) Dr. Charles Crawford, director of the Oral History Research Office, plans to collect oral history conversations from 100 men and women about the University’s history before the conclusion of 2012.

Prescott needed 18 hours of foreign language credits and planned to enroll in Spanish. The class was at 2 p.m., so he opted for the 8 a.m. Portuguese class instead.

"Only after taking six hours of Portuguese class did I realize that all 18 [hours] had to be in the same language. So, I had to start over my sophomore year with Spanish."

One of the U of M’s most beloved administrators, Jerry Boone, also took part in Crawford’s project.

In his interview, he recalled that early in his career he was "so full of vinegar" that he decided to "creatively" handle an issue with a few of the faculty who refused to pay outstanding parking tickets.

Extremely bothered by the complete disregard to pay the hundreds of dollars owed, Boone wrote letters to the offending faculty members. He reminded them that although he couldn’t make them pay the fines, he wasn’t going to let it slide.

"I’m going to remember this when the time comes around for evaluations," he said.

Boone found that was the wrong thing to do after the Faculty Senate censored his actions. He learned from this slip and continued working for the University. He went on to be vice president of Academic Affairs from 1972 to 1985 and interim University president in 1980.

By the end of the 2012 Centennial Celebration, the Oral History Research Office will have archived interviews with 100 men and women whose recollections span the school’s first 100 years.

All interviews will be available to the public through the University’s Special Collections Department, also referred to as the Mississippi Valley Collection, during school hours. The interviews may be online in the future.

"We’re doing this for the long run," Crawford says. "What I’m really thinking about is the bicentennial celebration, which will be held in 2112. People who want to know about the history of the school can listen to people talk about what it was like. Their names will be part of the history of the University."

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