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
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.
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
"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.
"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
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.
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
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
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."