Terry L. Birdwhistell, historian and former University of Kentucky dean, dies

Published 12:39 pm Thursday, February 2, 2023

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Kentucky Lantern

Historian, author and educator Terry L. Birdwhistell died Sunday after a brief illness, according to a news release from the University of Kentucky where he had been dean of  libraries and holder of the William T. Young Endowed Chair.

Best known for his oral histories, Birdwhistell was 72.

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The release from UK goes on:

“Being an archivist and an oral historian is like planting seeds and you don’t know when they’re going to germinate or what’s going to grow, but it’s fun,” Birdwhistell once told an interviewer about his 50-year career at UK.

“Terry was a person who knew more about the history of the University of Kentucky than anyone else,” said Charles T. Wethington, UK’s 10th president. “He was the university’s historian … As far as I’m concerned (Terry) is the father of the oral history program at the University of Kentucky, which has received national and international recognition. Terry is Mr. Oral History at UK as far as I’m concerned. … I just considered him a personal friend.”

Birdwhistell was born in Lawrenceburg in Central Kentucky’s Anderson County, although much of his youth was spent in Hopkinsville in Christian County, where he grew up listening to the legendary Claude Sullivan call UK basketball games on the radio.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in American Studies from Georgetown College, before coming to UK to earn master’s degrees in both history and library and information science. While studying for his master’s degrees in 1973, he took a job in UK Libraries and never left the university. He also earned a doctorate in higher education from UK’s College of Education, where he taught oral history for many years to scores of students, who enjoyed his deep knowledge and warm, personal teaching style.

Over five decades, Birdwhistell assumed increasing leadership roles in UK Libraries and became nationally prominent for his work as an oral historian. In addition to his tenure as Dean of UK Libraries, Birdwhistell also served as Associate Dean for Special Collections and Digital Programs, University Archivist and Founding Director of the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History.

As dean, Birdwhistell oversaw 11 libraries in the Commonwealth’s library system, a more than $20 million budget with nearly 4 million volumes, 73,000 series subscriptions and some 400 online databases. He was proud to be the Founding Director of the Wendell H. Ford Public Policy Research Center, which houses several notable political collections and has brought to campus luminaries in public policy such as then-Senator and now President Joe Biden and former Vice President Walter Mondale, among others.

Among many other distinctions, Birdwhistell served as co-editor of “Kentucky Remembered: An Oral History Series,” published by University Press of Kentucky; produced two documentaries on Kentucky Educational Television (KET) and served as the president of several professional associations, including the National Oral History Association.

He was the author or co-author of 15 published books, including most recently, “Our Rightful Place: A History of Women at the University of Kentucky, 1880-1945,” “James Franklin Hardymon, A Memoir,” and “Washington’s Iron Butterfly: Bess Clements Abell, An Oral History.”

However, it was his work as an oral historian, with a particular focus on UK and the Commonwealth of Kentucky, for which Birdwhistell was, perhaps, most well-known. In nearly 1,000 oral history interviews, Birdwhistell interviewed and documented the lives of the famous, such as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Lady Bird Johnson, Kentucky governors, senators and other politicians and University of Kentucky presidents.

Birdwhistell, in fact, interviewed every UK President since Otis A. Singletary and spent years, over hundreds of hours, conducting interviews with Wethington, Lee T. Todd Jr. and Eli Capilouto, while they were in office as part of a longstanding project.

Capilouto said it was Birdwhistell’s capacity for, and commitment to, listening that made it so “easy for those whom he questioned in his countless oral histories to open themselves with stories and lessons of their paths of both success and failure.

“So much of it is contained in the 50-year treasure trove that is the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History or the archives of the UK Libraries that he led, revered and watched over so that all of us might be able to unlock and better understand a bounty of history and humanity.

“He shared the experiences of others in ways that remind us that the power of connections can better unite us,” Capilouto added. “He told the stories of our university and our state in ways that made us one people, despite our differences. We are better for it.”

Birdwhistell also documented the lives of everyday Kentuckians, including many who were otherwise powerless or voiceless, preserving their histories and stories — Vietnam Veterans, members of the Frontier Nursing Service, who struggled to bring primary care to Eastern Kentucky. Along with historian and close friend George Wright, he chronicled the history of race relations in the state, from those who made and lived it.

“I believe [Terry and I] conducted research in all 120 counties,” from public libraries to county courthouses, said Wright, who documented race relations in Kentucky through three critically acclaimed books and first met Birdwhistell while both were studying for master’s degrees at UK. Wright would go on to a distinguished career, including Vice Provost at Duke University and President of Prairie View A&M University. He currently serves as a Senior Advisor to UK President Eli Capilouto.

“The three books I’ve written about race relations couldn’t have been written without him,” said Wright, who dedicated his third book to Birdwhistell. In fact, Birdwhistell’s last oral history interview, conducted only weeks ago, was with Sarah Clark Newby, Wright’s fifth- and sixth-grade teacher, who was among the first Black students at UK.

Wright said in addition to helping document Kentucky’s racial history, Birdwhistell also was “completely committed to making sure the story of women at the University of Kentucky was told” through books, oral histories and collections.

“He first of all had the personality in which he would always say something to make people feel at ease,” Wright said. “I call it that old Rodney Dangerfield thing of making you feel smarter than he was. He would really listen to you.”

Wright, who is originally from Lexington but for many years lived in Texas, said that in a friendship spanning more than 50 years, his family finally accepted the fact that whenever he would return home, he would first spend the night with Birdwhistell, where they would talk sports, politics and history late into the evening. Wright said he was even at the Birdwhistell home when their daughter Jessie took her first steps.

“Somehow, Terry and I miraculously became brothers,” said Wright, who recounted the fact that he and Birdwhistell were supposed to drive together recently to Simmons College, Louisville’s Historically Black College and University, to conduct more research together.

Wright said he told Birdwhistell, “I’ve got some long conversations I have saved up for you in the car.”

It would have been another in a life of conversations that Birdwhistell relished and savored for what it told him about people and their experiences.

“Quantitative studies are very important. Show me the data,” Birdwhistell said in an interview several years ago. “I just personally like stories better … Why not ask people what their experiences were.”

Birdwhistell is survived by his wife, Janice, a longtime UK administrator in the College of Communication and Information; his daughter, Jessie, and son-in-law, John Smith; and grand-daughter, Zoe.

In lieu of flowers, donations are requested to the endowment fund that is being established in memory and honor of Terry’s work at the University of Kentucky. Gifts may be sent for the Terry L. Birdwhistell Endowment Fund to the Office of Philanthropy, University of Kentucky, PO Box 23552, Lexington, KY 40523.

A celebration of life will be held at a later date at the University of Kentucky.

The Kentucky Lantern is an independent, nonpartisan, free news service.