This installment of The Out There Side blog series focuses on the life and work of Texas-based historian Dr. Marty Kuhlman.
Marking the centennial of American women gaining the right to vote, The Dallas Morning News recently ran an article about women’s suffrage in the Texas Panhandle. When the piece came over my email transom, I noticed it was penned by Dr. Marty Kuhlman of West Texas A&M University in Canyon, Texas.
“The Canyon campus,” Kuhlman writes, “was home to many who wanted to accord women permission to vote — a battle finally won 100 years ago, with the Aug. 18, 1920, passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”
To me, the informative essay evoked not only admiration for the prose but also a bit of envy toward its author. Full disclosure: Dr. Kuhlman is a childhood buddy. (Henceforth I’ll call him Marty.) At WTAMU — the hometown college where we both grew up — he has carved out a successful career as a history professor, writing scholarly books and articles on the side. He also hosts a classic-rock radio show on KWTS. And now he has the audacity to encroach on my own turf: journalism!
“As a teacher, you’re free to spend some time thinking and writing,” Marty relates in a phone interview. “You have to be there to teach your classes, you’ve got to grade and keep office hours and all of this,” he adds, “but we get our time. Like, if I decide I want to go to the library today for four hours, I can do that. If somebody has an eight-to-five job, you cannot do that.”
Another of Marty’s side gigs is editing the Panhandle-Plains Historical Review, an annual compendium of historical articles, where in late 2020 he will publish an extended piece about the women’s suffrage movement in the Panhandle. Central to the story is Lucille Shields, an Amarillo resident who joined the National Women’s Party in 1917 and was arrested multiple times for demonstrating at the White House in Washington, D.C., and in New York City. Once after spending five days in jail, “Shields told reporters, ‘Only the fact that you can give up your freedom for the sake of a greater freedom makes imprisonment endurable,’” Kuhlman writes. “Shields spent another three days in jail for applauding arrested suffragists in court.”
Marty marvels at the recurrence of demonstrations and resistance movements throughout U.S. history — from recent Black Lives Matter protests all the way back to the nation’s birth. “America was founded on civil disobedience,” he says. “You know, throwing tea in the harbor was civil disobedience.”
Many of Marty’s writings reflect his own areas of expertise: civil rights and the plight of the downtrodden. His doctoral dissertation at Texas Tech University was on Civil Rights in Texas. He’s written about the integration of Texas colleges. In 2007 he published a historical novel, Barriers, that was set amid the civil rights struggles in the 1950s. His WTAMU classes range from The Civil War and Reconstruction to Civil Rights Movements in the U.S. Since 1945.
“What has appealed to me are people who say, ‘We have so much against us but we’re going to go out and fight for these things, fight for these rights, and we’re staying,’” he says. “We’re going to continue to struggle and use our feet and march … and slowly there were some changes that came about. I’m interested in the endurance, I guess, of that.”
Endurance is a theme in Marty’s own life. In 1971, at age 10, while riding his bicycle he was hit by a car. He almost lost his life, and spent 77 days in a coma (“I was drifting in and out,” he says now). He missed a year of class with our Canyon group in fifth grade — instead studying at Children’s Rehabilitation Center in Amarillo — but he caught up and re-joined our class the next year, in a wheelchair.
Over the years, with rigorous rehab, Marty gradually progressed to walking with two crutches … then with one … then finally on his own. When he walked unaided across the stage to get his Canyon High School diploma, the entire arena erupted in a heartfelt standing ovation.
I ask Marty about his own kinship with endurance, and perseverance. “I think you’ve got to endure, obviously, and you have to persevere,” he replies. “You know, I was in the wheelchair and everything. And we had our Cool Dude Club, in eighth grade ...”
Here, with a chuckle, he deftly pivots away from his own travails. He’s using trusted survival tools — humor and camaraderie — to reminisce about a key period in our friendship. While we’d been neighbors and buddies from early on, we re-bonded in eighth-grade math while sitting together in the back of the class — where Marty had room for his wheelchair (and I could lay low).
There we confabulated on topics including sports, current events, and especially music. One day Marty told me about a great new song by Rufus & Chaka Khan: “Tell Me Something Good.” I checked out the tune and told him it was way cool, he had great taste. “Of course,” he replied, “I’m a cool dude.” We formed the Cool Dude Club on the spot.
We invited our neighbor and buddy Stan Sanders to join. “Time has shown,” Stan says now, “that Dr. Marty Kuhlman — scholar, revered teacher, master of perseverance and all around class act — is one really cool dude.”
Even in junior high, Marty had a near-encyclopedic knowledge of pop music, which he now ascribes to his long time spent in hospital and at home. “I listened to the radio a lot,” he recalls of that recovery period. “And 1971 is one of my favorite years in music. They had ‘Maggie May’ and ‘Uncle Albert’ and all that stuff. KPUR radio, you remember. A lot of it was because that’s all I could do, you know, was sit in the bed and listen to the radio.”
Marty’s love of classic rock lives on in his radio show for KWTS, called Psychotic Reaction, which airs on Friday nights from 7 to 9 p.m. CST. Here he might spin and discuss anything from the Supremes to Led Zeppelin — usually with a healthy dose of the Beatles, who Marty calls “the fourth B” in classic music (after Bach, Beethoven and Brahms).
“If there was such a thing as having a PhD in Beatles, I think Dr. Kuhlman would have it,” says Dr. Bruce Brasington, professor of history at WTAMU, in a video tribute to Marty when he received the WTAMU 2011 University Excellence Award.
Marty’s affinity for the Fab Four started when his older sister loaned him her copy of Rubber Soul. He cites “In My Life” as a touchstone: “It’s a universal song. Everyone has places they remember.” In 2019 Marty taught a seminar at WTAMU called “The Beatles: Hair, Hysteria and History,” which occasioned a research trip to England. “We got to go to Oxford, Liverpool, and London,” he recalls. “Too much fun.”
Lessons of History
Aside from cultural excursions in his life, Marty’s main scholarly focus goes back more than a century: to the post–Civil War era of Reconstruction. “It’s one of the biggest areas of American history that’s most ignored,” he says.
“Reconstruction is the first true debate about, What is the role of the federal government? How much should the government be involved in helping the people in the nation? And in this case it’s the freedmen — giving them land, and help with contracts, and education, and then the right to vote. And it’s ironic, because at that time Republicans felt that the federal government should be more involved. And today it’s just the opposite.”
He adds that a concurrent argument arose over states’ rights. “There were the Republicans who said, ‘We — the federal government — have got to do something. We can’t count on southern states to help out with the freedmen. So we’ve got to step in and overrule them.’ Meanwhile other people were saying, ‘Let the states decide.’ The central debate is, What is the role of the federal government? And it’s still going today.”
Marty concurs that the federal-vs.-state’s rights debate continues to play out in our current COVID-19 crisis, where the U.S. has no cogent federal policy in place. “What’s amazing to me is how Germany or other countries are doing,” he says. “I mean, the U.S. is four times bigger than Germany. So we should have four times as many cases. Germany has less than 10,000 deaths. We have more than 200,000. I don’t understand that.”
In the COVID era, Marty is teaching classes at WTAMU in a hybrid form — partly online and partly in person, with class members switching between the two for each session. He feels that the students and faculty are “following the rules” and keeping safe.
He’s studied and written about the 1918 Influenza Pandemic — incongruously known as the Spanish Flu — and its impact on the Texas Panhandle. “In that case, 675,000 died in America. That’s out of a population of 103 million. And unlike our pandemic, it hit young, healthy people. But today, it’s barely a blip in history,” he notes. “I’m thinking: [COVID-19] is really a big deal. Boy, it’s really changing my life. But in 50 years, is it going to be in the history books?”
During the ups and downs of world events, Marty takes a long view. “History is not when just things get better and better — no, they don’t,” he says. “During Reconstruction, people thought it was going to be better, and then it got worse. Things got a lot worse. One title of a book about Reconstruction I talk about is, Time of Hope, Time of Despair. You have that time of hope, but it can also be taken away from you.” He pauses. “That’s what I see. But there’s always more hope.”