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Dean Stephen W. Brown, Ph.D. to give ‘Last Lecture’ on West Virginia pioneering ways before retiring after nearly 50 years at WVU Tech

Dean Stephen W. Brown delivers a lecture from a podium.

Dr. Stephen Brown, Dean of the WVU Tech College of Business, Humanities and Social Sciences, gave his entry in WVU Tech’s “Last Lecture” series on Thursday, November 19. The archived video is now available on  YouTube You can also watch the retirement sendoff video for Dr. Brown on our YouTube channel . Check out photos from the Last Lecture and retirement recognition on Flickr

Original story: 

The noted West Virginia historian will cap his 48-year career in instruction with a lecture entitled “Pioneer Ways and Folkways in West Virginia,” a presentation on frontier culture in Appalachia and a look at how those cultural elements persisted unchanged in the region, particularly in West Virginia, for nearly a century.

“Of the many courses I offered over the years, West Virginia in its Appalachian Setting was among my favorite classes. As a young professor, my research was largely focused on Appalachia, and I thoroughly enjoyed talking about the culture and people of the region,” Brown said.

“West Virginia was, for many years, akin to a time capsule that preserved pioneer culture long after other regions in America had changed with the passing of time. My lecture will focus on frontier living conditions, the unique challenges confronting early settlers, why their culture evolved so slowly and the forces that preserved that culture over the next hundred years.”

For anyone familiar with Brown or his longstanding history as an educator, scholar and author, it’s a fitting signoff. Brown will retire in January after spending his entire career dedicated to the education of West Virginia’s students and the study of our state’s history.

A born historian from the heart of West Virginia

Brown was born and raised in Fola, West Virginia, a small town in Clay County. He hit the books early and developed a passion for stories and history right from the start. By the time he reached high school, he’d already decided he wanted to teach history – to share the stories of those who came before with those who would follow.

He enrolled at then West Virginia Institute of Technology in Montgomery. He excelled, studying under such noted instructors as the late Dr. Otis K. Rice, a West Virginia historian and the state’s first historian laureate.

“I had some trouble in his class,” Brown said. “Not that I did poorly, mind you. I just didn’t take notes because I was so much more interested in hearing these stories instead of writing. The way he presented history and often related events to the present, was incredible. His classes convinced me more than anything else that this was what I wanted to do.”

He had some other convincing, too. Between semesters, he spent his time working at a paper mill in Rittman, Ohio, where he had extended family.

“After experiencing hard, manual labor in a factory, I knew I wanted to stay in school,” he said. “If ever there was a good retention tool, that was it.”

Stay in school he did. After graduating from Tech in 1972, he went on to earn a master’s in history from Marshall University. He then claimed his Ph.D. in the field from WVU.

“I’m a West Virginian through and through. Born here, educated here and spent my entire career here,” he said.

Following his graduate study, an opening came up in WVU Tech’s history department. So, in 1973, fresh from completing a master’s degree in history, Brown returned to Tech’s campus as an instructor.

“One of my first assignments was a social studies teaching methods class. I’m fresh out of grad school and asked to train public teachers,” he said.

“No pressure there.”

But he took to teaching and his students took to him. He went on to instruct countless students throughout his career, delivering life lessons drawn from history essentials.

He taught American history, world history, history of the South and modern European history. He even taught some “television” classes in the 90s where students would learn alongside documentaries on everything from the Civil War to Japanese history.

His favorite course? It was none other than “West Virginia and its Appalachian Setting.”

“I taught that course for at least 25 years. I spent a lot of my career researching Appalachian history and my scholarship helped me to be a more effective teacher,” he said.

Brown served as department chair for a brief stint when his colleague, the late Dr. Ronald Alexander – who literally wrote the book on WVU Tech’s history – took a break for health reasons.

When the dean position opened in 2000, he was one of several applicants. “Prior to submitting my application, I thought about it for a long time before applying since it would take my career in a new direction. I’m glad I did it,” he said.

Where the average lifespan of a college dean can be anywhere from three to five years, Brown has completed two decades.

Two historians walk into a tavern

Brown’s half-century of historical work in the Mountain State consisted of much more than teaching.

In 1985, he published his first book “Voice of the New West: John G. Jackson, His Life and Times.” The biography chronicled the life of John G. Jackson from Clarksburg, West Virginia (then Virginia). Jackson was a state legislator, congressman and federal judge.   

“Here’s a man who lived a fascinating life. His brother-in-law was president James Madison. He at one point had a duel with a congressman from North Carolina. In researching his life, I located an abundance of firsthand sources, particularly letters, period newspapers, federal papers and other sources. When my dissertation on Jackson was completed and it was later accepted for publication, it was a great feeling to see it in print,” said Brown.

Brown went on to publish several books and articles on West Virginia and Appalachian history, but some of his most cherished memories are working with Dr. Otis K. Rice. Dr. Otis K. Rice, Brown’s former teacher, was working on a second edition of his “West Virginia: A History.” Rice originally published the text in 1985, but when the publisher asked for an update in 1993, Rice tapped Brown to help. Their collaboration still stands as one of the essentials for anyone interested in state history.

“It’s really something to work with someone so well-known in the field, inside and outside of West Virginia. Personally, to have studied under someone of this caliber and then to work with them was a real pleasure and truly an honor,” said Brown.

Brown and Rice went on to collaborate on a variety of projects, including a book entitled “The Mountain State: A History of West Virginia” which became a textbook in the state’s public schools and commissioned by the West Virginia Historical Education Foundation.

The two worked together for many years at Tech and built a longstanding friendship. In fact, it was Rice who gave Brown a piece of advice he carried with him throughout his career.

“He once said to me, ‘Steve, when it comes to teaching, be long where there’s interest and short where there’s not,’” he said.

That mountainous frontier

Although his lecture contains a twinge of nostalgia and admiration for the unspoiled frontier, “I’m glad that I live in this period of time, because when I look back at living conditions, particularly the lack of medical knowledge in pioneer times, it scares me to death. The danger and the perils of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries cause me to have great respect for people like Daniel Boone who had the courage to penetrate the unknown world of frontier America. My sense of direction is not very good as I can enter a big department store and get lost if I leave through a different exit,” he joked.

“But I would love to have seen Appalachia in those pioneer days, where the old growth forests stood untouched. Where the native flora and fauna had not been altered by European settlers. I’ve been to China three times and seen Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey. Those are all great places, and I truly enjoyed experiencing them, but I really wish that I could have seen the unspoiled frontier.”

And those frontier times of wild forests and the people who explored them are what Brown will cover in Thursday’s lecture.

After all, this is what he has studied his whole career. This is what he enjoyed teaching to others. He’s not much of a “war guy” when it comes to teaching history because, for him, understanding our social and cultural history is vital to understanding our roots and who we are.  Pioneering attitudes have endured in some ways down to the present time.  

So, this “Last lecture” will mark the end of a five-decade career where it started, with a historian – a West Virginian through and through – sharing the stories that built our state and the people in it.

The WVU Tech community wishes Dr. Brown a happy and healthy retirement where he can spend time making his own stories. And if it’s true what they say – that history repeats itself – we’d welcome that young historian from Fola back in a heartbeat.




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