By Todd Copeland
(This story originally ran in the Fall 2015 issue of Baylor Arts & Sciences magazine, and has been partially updated. Dr. Vardaman passed away on Jan. 31, 2018, in Waco at age 89.)
Sitting in his library at home, where built-in bookshelves run from floor to ceiling on every wall, Dr. James “Jim” Vardaman is in his natural habitat — surrounded by thousands of books and the world of ideas contained between each set of covers.
Books were the primary tools Vardaman used during more than three decades of teaching history at Baylor. His students had to read many scholarly texts for his classes, of course. But there was also the larger library of the books in his head, the ones he had read and drew upon while lecturing — always without notes — each day in class. Books were the foundation for his masterful presence in the classroom.
Today, Vardaman still reads one or two books a week, adding to his voluminous collection. Another thing he has collected over the years are the letters of former students. He said he has no idea how many men and women he taught over the years — “I always just say ‘thousands,’” he said — but he recently was asked to make a list of Baylor alumni whom he has kept up with, usually through correspondence.
“I figured there’d probably be about 50,” he said. “But incredibly, there were many more than that.”
In compiling the list, as an aid to memory he pulled out a box from a closet where he has stored those former students’ letters.
“I read over some of them, and some were pretty heady, I must confess,” Vardaman said. “You take pride in your students. To hear about one of them doing well — that’s your bonus. It’s very satisfying.”
Students, teaching and conversations
Students were always at the heart of Vardaman’s career, and he was glad to give them the best hours of each day at work.
A 1951 graduate of Baylor, he returned to Waco to teach in 1967. In addition to serving as a professor of history, he participated in and directed international programs — in Egypt, Vienna, Austria, Britain, China and Maastricht, The Netherlands, and he led Baylor alumni on numerous overseas study trips.
Vardaman chaired the Beall-Russell Lectures in the Humanities for 10 years and held the Jo Murphy Chair in International Education. He was also named a Master Teacher, the highest honor given to a Baylor faculty member. He retired in 2000.
Baylor has always been known as a place where great teachers give individualized attention to their students. Few embodied that more than Vardaman. Early in his tenure at Baylor, he realized he was trying to focus fully on research and scholarly writing intended for publication, but he was also very drawn to teaching, both in and outside the classroom.
He continued to do scholarly work in British history throughout his career, but he highly valued his time with students, too –– both at home and abroad.
“It was important to Jim to open his door in the afternoons to receive anyone who wanted to visit,” said his wife, Elizabeth “Betsy” Vardaman (BA ’65, MA ’80), who serves as associate dean for engaged learning in the College of Arts & Sciences. “Through the years, many students came and many had great memories of those open hours –– when anyone could come and any subject was open for discussion.”
“It was stimulating,” Jim Vardaman said, remembering all of those conversations. “There were times when you felt like you had something to say, that they heard it, internalized it to a certain degree, and that it might — just might — make some difference. Not the difference, not the almighty difference, but some difference in the way they saw things, appreciated things.”
Vardaman said he owed his determination to become a history professor to the influence of Baylor’s Dr. E. Bruce Thompson, who allowed him to be his grader during his senior year.
“His door was always open,” Vardaman said. “I thought that was just the way it is, until I began graduate study for my MA degree at the University of Minnesota and discovered it wasn’t. At Minnesota, not one single professor had his door open. I liked the school very much, but it made me realize how different Baylor was and how much I liked that part of Baylor.”
A family matter
Vardaman’s connection to Baylor is part of a larger bond between the University and his family.
He and his four siblings grew up in Dallas and attended First Baptist Church of Dallas, where Baylor alumnus and legendary Baptist leader George W. Truett was pastor. Truett played an important role in the life of the Vardamans, especially after Jim’s father died two weeks before he was born. In fact, one of his brothers was named George Truett Vardaman in honor of their pastor.
Vardaman began his studies at Baylor after serving in the U.S. Marine Corps for four years, matriculating in the spring of 1949. He was preceded on campus by his older brother Jerry, who had likewise served in the Marine Corps (and later became professor of archeology and religion at Mississippi State University), and by his sister, Ann.
Ann was better known as Ann Vardaman Miller –– a distinguished Baylor English professor and Master Teacher who was the wife of Dr. Robert T. Miller, chair of political science at Baylor. It was Ann, in fact, who played a vital role in determining that her youngest brother would become a Baylor student.
“When she determined to do something, Lord help the poor guy in the way,” Vardaman said. “She worked miracles. First, she got me transferred down to the Marine Corps depot in McAlester, Oklahoma, so I could be discharged close enough to Baylor to make it there on the last day I would be eligible to receive G.I. Bill benefits. Then, Ann sat me down on a hard bench in Pat Neff Hall to help me prepare for an English proficiency exam, and we went over all of the rules of grammar.”
Vardaman passed the exam, and thus began what became a connection to Baylor that has been strong for the rest of his life. After earning his doctorate at Vanderbilt, Vardaman taught at TCU and Virginia Military Institute (VMI). Although he said he was quite happy at VMI — “I figured everyone in the world wanted to vacation in the Shenandoah Valley,” he said — the pull of Baylor was too strong to resist when he was offered a job at his alma mater.
Over the years, several scholarships have been endowed at Baylor in honor of Vardaman. It’s something Vardaman said means much to him, both personally and because it helps another student realize his or her dreams of a Baylor education.
“I never dreamed of anything like that. Each time, it’s been totally unexpected,” Vardaman said. “When I heard about the first scholarship being named after me, it felt like someone saying you’ve just been elected president of Kenya.”
And to Vardaman’s surprise, the desire to honor him has remained important to his former students and friends. In 2011 he was honored by being inducted into Phi Beta Kappa.
Also in his honor, a few years ago the College of Arts & Sciences established the James Vardaman Endowed Faculty Development Fund, which has now grown into the James Vardaman Endowed Professorship Fund that helps attract and retain professors in the Department of History. The funds may be used for, but are not limited to, the support of salary, research needs, scholarship and travel expenses.
“It’s quite satisfying, and let’s face it — there’s a bit of pride in it,” Vardaman said of such an honor. “I love every brick in Baylor University. To have the pleasure and the privilege of attending this university was probably the greatest thing that ever happened to me.”
“I can safely say that the quality and good reputation that Baylor’s history department now enjoys rests upon the efforts of brilliant, caring professors such as Jim Vardaman. It’s evident from the high regard he is held in by those who know him that he has played a significant role in their lives.”
Dean, Baylor College of Arts & Sciences
“You always saw more in me than I saw in myself. You always inspired me to try to be a better person.”
“When I became a teacher, you were the standard by which I judged myself…I am certain of two things –– I never reached the standard you set for me, and because of your example I am a much better teacher than I ever would have been.”
Professor of Communication at Baylor
“You whetted our love of history and travel with your unbounding knowledge of the human experience and the world in which we live.”
Retired Presiding Judge, Texas Court of Criminal Appeals
“The expansive reservoir of knowledge he holds and the passion he showed for his work truly made an impression on me. We used to call him the Walking Library of Congress.”
“The time with Vardaman was an intellectual turning point in my life. I still think about Vardaman every day when I go in the classroom. His impact on me has been enormous. I hope that I can someday impact a student’s life in the same way.”
Professor of history and teaching award winner, Furman University
“My friends and I responded to your teaching and encouragement by blossoming, beginning to realize the potential within ourselves that you could already see. We responded toward you with admiration and devotion.”
“I took your history class as a freshman…I remember writing a note at the end of my final exam blue book saying that you were the most incredible teacher I had ever studied with.”
National college debate champion, 1975
“You personified what was good and special about the Baylor I attended. You are one of those rare, brilliant faculty who cared so much about this university that all you did was for the betterment of Baylor.”
Dean of the Baylor Graduate School
“It is one of the greatest treasures of my life to be able to say, ‘I took history with Jim Vardaman.’”
Acclaimed Hollywood film director
“Baylor University does not have a Hall of Fame for professors, but if it did, Dr. Vardaman, by unanimous choice, would be in it.”
Dean, Baylor College of Arts & Sciences (1996-2005)