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For historian Ray Arsenault, 40 years at USFSP has been ‘a wonderful life’

The beloved teacher and campus leader retired at the end of the past semester. But what is he going to do with 15,000 books?
Ray Arsenault, the John Hope Franklin Professor of History and Florida Studies co-founder at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, is retiring after 40 years at the university, at his office in the historic Snell House, on campus, Monday, Dec. 7, 2020 in St. Petersburg.
Ray Arsenault, the John Hope Franklin Professor of History and Florida Studies co-founder at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, is retiring after 40 years at the university, at his office in the historic Snell House, on campus, Monday, Dec. 7, 2020 in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Dec. 11, 2020
Updated Dec. 11, 2020

One of the first problems Raymond Arsenault will face in retirement is what to do with his legendary book collection.

“I’ve given away about 130 books,” he says. “That leaves me with 15,000 more.”

Arsenault calls himself “a missionary of book culture,” but he’s better known as the John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History and co-founder of the Florida studies program at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

Or, as one of his oldest friends at USFSP says, “I like what the students call him: the lion of the campus.”

This month Arsenault, 72, is retiring as the longest-serving faculty member at USFSP. He came to the waterfront campus in downtown St. Petersburg in 1980, with a freshly minted Ph.D. from Brandeis University and the notion he would only stay for a few years.

That was 40 years ago. He taught his last class session on Dec. 2, and the graduate and undergraduate students in the course (Introduction to Florida and Regional Studies), along with some family and friends, surprised him with a sendoff brimming with praise, affection and good wishes.

Related: Ray Arsenault's former students talk about their teacher.

It took place, of course, on Zoom. He’d been teaching virtually for months, and that was one factor in his decision to retire. He loves teaching — “I’ve taught 65 different classes; I hate to do the same course over and over” — but, he says, “I knew that the day I didn’t love it, I’d hate it.”

He still sings his students’ praises; it’s the virtual venue he doesn’t like. Online classes just aren’t a good fit for his intensely interactive seminars. “I want to make my classes an experience. I tell my students, you’re going to be a different person after this class.”

He says, “The online teaching is going to continue for at least a year, I think,” so it seemed like a good time to retire.

USFSP professor Raymond Arsenault, second from left in top row, taught his last class via Zoom before retiring after 40 years on the faculty.
USFSP professor Raymond Arsenault, second from left in top row, taught his last class via Zoom before retiring after 40 years on the faculty. [ Courtesy of David Brodosi ]

Arsenault has certainly achieved enough for several careers. His curriculum vitae runs to 17 pages, full of lists of his courses, awards, professional memberships and community activism. He’s written or edited nine books and dozens of articles. One of his books, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, was the source for an Emmy-winning PBS documentary; two more of them are currently in the process of moving from page to screen.

His interest in history, and particularly in the history of race in America, which became his signature subject, began in boyhood. His family lived many places while his father was in the U.S. Navy, but their roots were in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. His maternal grandmother, a concert pianist and avid reader, told him about ancestors who came over on the Mayflower and others who were abolitionists, he says.

“I was intoxicated with history as a boy,” he says. “From about age 11, I knew I wanted to be a history teacher, a professor.”

He was also fascinated by statistics, thanks to his love of baseball: “A lot of history starts with baseball.” (He’s an avid Rays fan.)

Historian Ray Arsenault is an avid fan of the Tampa Bay Rays.
Historian Ray Arsenault is an avid fan of the Tampa Bay Rays. [ Courtesy of Sudsy Tschiderer ]

Arsenault spent his high school years in Florida. At Fernandina Beach High School, he met his future wife, Kathy Hardee, whose family had lived in the area for generations. One of their bonds, he says, was that she “was the only other vocal advocate of civil rights in our high school” in the mid-1960s.

They eloped when they were 19 and have two daughters, Amelia and Anne, and two young grandchildren, Lincoln and Poppy, whom Arsenault is looking forward to visiting more often. Kathy Arsenault spent much of her career at USFSP, too, retiring as dean of the Nelson Poynter Library.

The same week they married, Arsenault says, his future was redirected in an example of the historical contingency he likes to emphasize to his students, the idea that history is not a deterministic procession of events but something shaped dynamically by unexpected forces.

His contingency: dropping four trays of plastic glasses.

Arsenault attended Princeton University as a scholarship student, and for his first two years his campus job was clearing tables as a busboy in a dining hall. He anticipated being promoted to captain (better pay, less work) until the day he was carrying those trays on a stairway, tripped and dropped the whole thing into a private “date night” dining room.

He needed a new campus job after that, so he became a research assistant to history professor Sheldon Hackney. “That absolutely changed my life,” he says.

Hackney (who died in 2013) was an eminent scholar of the history of the American South, the civil rights movement and the relationship between populism and progressivism. His mentorship and support shaped Arsenault’s career.

After graduating magna cum laude from Princeton, Arsenault earned his master’s and doctoral degrees at Brandeis, writing a dissertation published as a book titled The Wild Ass of the Ozarks: Jeff Davis and the Social Bases of Southern Politics. Davis was an Arkansas politician, but, Arsenault says, “I was more interested in the voters than the politicians.”

He taught for a couple of years at the University of Minnesota, years marked by the coldest winters on record there: “A lot of days it never got up to zero.” Florida native Kathy found that hard to take, so the Arsenaults landed in St. Petersburg in 1980.

One of the first things he remembers seeing on campus, in January, was students and faculty playing water volleyball in the outdoor campus pool, a game played daily by a “cross-section” of the campus.

One of the players was Joan “Sudsy” Tschiderer, who earned her MFA in English at USFSP and also became its longest-employed staff member, retiring in 2011 after 40 years, much of it in Student Affairs. (She still works part time as an events coordinator and is a mainstay of the Times Festival of Reading.)

“He was a presence from the get-go,” she says of Arsenault. “Ray and Kathy really embraced the campus, which nurtured academics in a different way.” USFSP was a smaller campus then, with only upper-level courses. Its young faculty was not much older than many students, and, Tschiderer says, they “got to see their students bloom.”

The two worked together on various committees over the years. About 20 years ago, both of them ended up with offices in the historic Snell House, one of the jewels of the campus, where, she says “he sort of colonized the upstairs,” now home to much of that massive book collection.

She recalls that while he was writing Freedom Riders he would emerge from his office onto the stair landing and ask whoever was in the house, “Want to hear what I just wrote?”

“Where else do you have that kind of opportunity?” Tschiderer says, to witness such creativity at work.

Another of Arsenault’s longest friendships is with Gary Mormino, the Frank E. Duckwall Professor of History emeritus, who retired from USFSP in 2013 after 36 years on the Tampa and St. Petersburg campuses.

Mormino says he and Arsenault have been friends since 1980: “Our careers and families are uncannily parallel.” He and his wife, Lynne, and their two daughters became friends with the Arsenaults, sometimes vacationing together at Kathy’s family’s log cabin on Amelia Island.

The two professors collaborated as co-editors of the Florida History and Culture book series for the University Press of Florida, which from 1996 to 2013 published 50 books about the state.

Mormino moved to the St. Petersburg campus in 2003, the same year that Arsenault had “what seemed like the lamest of ideas, but turned out to be the best idea”: a Florida studies program.

Arsenault and Mormino co-founded and co-directed the interdisciplinary graduate program, which includes courses in history, literature, geography, anthropology, political science and more.

As a teacher and scholar, Mormino says, his friend is “very disciplined, very principled. He has an amazing sense of what scholarship is going to turn to next, the next hot topic. He was teaching environmental studies in the 1980s.”

Arsenault’s long interest in civil rights and social justice, of course, could not be more current. One major influence on that specialization was his friendship with John Hope Franklin, who he says was, with Hackney, his most significant mentor.

Franklin, who died in 2009, was an acclaimed Black historian, recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and author of From Slavery to Freedom, which has sold more than 3 million copies. “He and John Lewis were the two most extraordinary human beings I ever met,” Arsenault says.

At one point, Arsenault was considering offers from other universities. USFSP created the John Hope Franklin chair for him — “the thrill of my life, and it couldn’t have happened anywhere else.”

Freedom Riders, published in 2006, was the first book of a trilogy about race in America; Arsenault followed it with The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Concert That Awakened America in 2009 and Arthur Ashe: A Life in 2018.

Related: A review of "Arthur Ashe: A Life."

With those books, he also found his voice as a historian. “I became a storyteller,” he says, not only recounting facts but creating a compelling narrative. “I wanted to write for a larger audience, but not dumb it down. I see the books as my larger classroom.”

The PBS American Experience version of Freedom Riders, directed by Stanley Nelson, won three Emmys in 2010. In 2011, Arsenault and 178 of the surviving Freedom Riders appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show.

Arsenault is consulting with filmmakers on another documentary, based on The Sound of Freedom, and there’s a movie version of the Ashe story in the works as well.

“I might have another book in me,” Arsenault says, although the 784-page Ashe biography, the labor of a decade, was a challenge. He’s signed a contract to write “a short biography” of Lewis for Yale University Press’ new Black Lives Series.

He’ll miss his students, he says. “The students here have been just great. They’ll walk through walls for you” — or, in his case, happily grapple with daunting class assignments that can include more than a dozen texts and a rigorous writing component.

And he’s especially proud of the Florida studies program. “It was great, just a great way of fitting square pegs into round holes. And we brought in some terrific writers in residence, like Jeff Klinkenberg and Craig Pittman.”

What won’t he miss after retirement? Committee meetings: “I can be a little impatient.”

He also says he’s “had enough after two years of fighting consolidation.” Arsenault, long an activist in campus politics, championed USFSP’s autonomy as a campus, a battle lost to USF’s move toward consolidation. “We’re the model they should have followed,” he says, but he fears the unique nature of the campus is threatened. “That corporate model — that’s what I won’t miss.”

He’ll be busy with the work he does with various organizations, including the ACLU and the Studio@620, and he won’t be gone from campus. He has those 15,000 books to sort, and he’ll be able to use his office for a couple of years.

“It’s a wonderful space. I think it’s the biggest office at USF. I always prided myself on having an office bigger than Genshaft’s,” he says of former USF president Judy Genshaft, with whom he was often at odds.

“I’ve just been so privileged, so honored to have this career. I don’t feel like I have a boss. The academic freedom here has been terrific. It’s just a wonderful life.”

The historian can’t resist, though. “I do wonder sometimes what would have happened if I hadn’t dropped those glasses.”