Stephen B. Oates Made History Come Alive For His Students

Stephen B. Oates, a native Pampan, is an award-winning biographer, historian and retired university professor with an international reputation. He is listed in “Who’s Who in America” for 1997 and is now a professor emer- itus at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Stephen Baery Oates was born on January 5, 1936, in Worley Hospital at Pampa, Texas. His father was Stephen T. Oates and his mother was Florence Baer, daughter of Chris and Freida (Schroeder) Baer. Stephen T. Oates worked for Phillips Petroleum Company before he moved his family to Oklahoma for three more years with the company.

Photo of Eloise Lane

Eloise Lane

The family lived in Missouri during World War II and came back to Pampa in 1944. Stephen T. worked for Thompson Parts and Supply, and Florence was a receptionist in the office of Dr. Marvin C. Overton, Jr. for 18 years. Stephen T. Oates died in 1990. Florence has recently moved from Pampa to live near one of her three sons. Stephen B. Oates was known as Baery Oates when he attended school in Pampa. He and his two younger brothers, Anthony “Tony” Brent and Michael Kent, were students at Sam Houston Elementary School. Each of the three boys believes that he received an excellent education in the Pampa schools. All three played in the school bands and Stephen B. and Michael played “Taps” at funerals.

Stephen B. was greatly impressed by English teacher Aubra Nooncaster and history teacher W. H. Drowze. Stephen B. began to deliver Amarillo papers when he was in elementary school and continued to do so until he was a freshman or sophomore in high school.

He always devoted himself to everything he did and worked diligently at any assigned task. Playing the cornet, he was very active in the school bands and received an award for his outstanding work when he graduated from Pampa High School in 1954. Stephen B. loved to read and was especially interested in books about World War II which he borrowed from a friend of his mother. When he entered the Univer- sity of Texas, he began to buy books of his own and soon acquired an extensive library. At first he intended to major in business. Then, influenced by a friend, he became interested in the forest service and studied for a year at the University of Montana at Missoula. In the simmer he spent two months, almost entirely by himself, at a look-out post high in the mountains. Then he knew what he wanted to do. Returning to Pampa, he worked in the post office for several months, and in January he reentered the University of Texas to prepare for a career of teaching and writing.

He completed work on his bachelor’s degree (Magna Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa) and also earned his M. A. and PhD. at UT Austin. Before joining the faculty of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1968, he had taught at his alma mater and at UT Arlington, Texas Christian University and the University of Houston. Of all the teaching honors Oates has won, his most cherished is a “Distinguished Certificate” awarded in 1981 by students of the University of Massachusetts. A description of his teaching style and his ability to make history come alive for students is the subject of an article in the magazine section of the Daily Hampshire Gazette in March 1997.

Word of mouth on the UM campus was that any class taught by Oates was a “must take,” and the author of the article in the Gazette was told that she should get to Oates’ classroom early to get a good seat. By the time class began, the class- room and hail were jammed with more than 200 bodies, scores of baseball caps and backpacks and notebooks. Almost hidden by the podium at stage left, Oates, seated in a metal folding chair, waited by himself. At the scheduled time for class to begin, he stood and began to walk — first up one side, deep into the hall, then up and down the other aisle. A film about the struggles of integration was shown, and at times he stopped the film to supplement it with his own narration, occasionally stabbing the air to make his point. Oates frequently used films to enhance his presentation of historical per- sons and events.

One of the most popular courses at UM was History 471A — “The Kennedys and the Kennedy Era.” The film begins with Marilyn Monroe, in a slinky beaded dress, singing “Happy Birthday” to the handsome young president, John F. Kennedy. Meanwhile students think “This is history?” One student said that Oates has a gift of making history live because he makes it “graspable.” Most often the various explanations for his appeal to generations of students boil down to one: “He’s not boring.” Oates’ books were written for “the educated general reader who is interested in American history.”

His longtime editor at HarperCollins says that Oates’ books have a broad appeal because “he is able to make his subject as interesting and inviting as possible. . . His sense of history and drama is acute. He gets in- volved with the people he’s written about … he gets under their skins and into their minds. Oates’ love of history began as he listened to Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside chats and to his uncle when he came back from the Second World War.

At UT Austin, Oates first read Bruce Catton’s Civil War histories and says “nothing was ever the same after that.” Oates was a consultant for Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary and appeared as one of the “talking heads” in the acclaimed series. Oates’ sixteenth book, “The Approaching Fury: Voices of the Storm 1820-1861,” tells the story of the coming of the Civil War through the viewpoints of thirteen principal players in the drama. A sequel, “The Whirlwind of War: Voices of the Storm 1861-1865,” tells the story of the Civil War through the viewpoints of eleven principal players in the drama.

Over 200 Articles, written by Eloise Lane, were published in the Pampa News. These articles may be accessed by clicking on each section below. A list of articles will be revealed that are linked to a page containing the text of the article.

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