Spokesman for the Past
Dr. Walter Edgar continues to share his passion for history (and reasonable, worthwhile discourse) with thousands who respect and admire him though his books, speaking engagements, and programs on SCETV-Radio.
By Jackie Perrone
Dr. Walter Edgar’s middle name might as well be History. His name, his face, his writings, and perhaps above all his voice on the airways, have for more than four decades brought the chapters of South Carolina and other history alive for students and listeners. If it happened here, it can be described in detail, with context, by South Carolina’s pre-eminent historian. The Go-To guy for understanding, so to speak.
For 40 years Edgar taught history at the University of South Carolina, reaching thousands of students in his popular class. “It was an elective, so I enjoyed thinking that every student was there because this person wanted to be there. Big classes, up to 90 or more students: that’s a lot of connection. I hope I made it real for them,” he says.
A much wider reach was achieved when he connected with SCETV and SCETV-Radio, culminating in a broadcast career now 15 years long and still going strong. Recent events have brought into focus his first, and subsequently his most recent, broadcasts on this network, to wit:
“I got a call from SCETV in the year 2000, asking for discussion on the events in play at the South Carolina General Assembly.” What events? A prolonged, often rancorous clash of opinions about the Confederate flag on the dome of the Capitol building. Why was it up there? Did it belong there? Should it be moved, and if so, where to? The legislature was working for a compromise to satisfy those on several sides of the issue. SCETV wanted to air a knowledgeable and reasonable discussion, and Walter Edgar stepped up to the microphone with information on the background and environment. The legislature came to terms with a compromise which brought the flag down from the dome and installed it on a flagpole next to the Confederate monument on the State House grounds. SCETV and Dr. Walter Edgar have been a team ever since.
Fast-forward to 2015: A startling chain of events beginning with the murder of nine individuals in a church in Charleston brought about swift passage of a law to remove the flag from the State House grounds. Just as he had weighed in on the issue 15 years earlier, Walter Edgar spoke from SCETV with thoughtful comments and perspective as the change took place.
On SCETV-Radio, Walter Edgar’s Journal currently airs weekly; South Carolina A to Z is a daily feature. These titles reflect his prolific writing career. Dr. Edgar states that he wrote three major books in 10 years: Editor-in-Chief, The South Carolina Encyclopedia, University of South Carolina Press, 2006; Partisans and Redcoats: The Southern Campaign that Turned the Tide of the American Revolution, William Morrow, 2001; and South Carolina: A History, University of South Carolina Press, 1998. These head a long list of the other books and the many essays, book forewords, magazine articles, and lectures he created. Now in his “retirement,” he writes shorter pieces and gives lectures at colleges and clubs, somewhat less frequently than in the past.
Our state’s premier historian started life in Mobile, Alabama, and earned his B.A. degree at Davidson College in North Carolina. The young man then joined the Army and found himself in 1960s Viet Nam. What was that experience like for this serious student? “No regrets,” he says succinctly. “Our unit was closely involved with a local government team, advising and supporting their efforts. I learned a lot about another culture, and also I learned a lot about myself. It’s the kind of experience which can be positive and worthwhile. Actually I was a guest at West Point just a few weeks ago, giving some oral history about that time.”
After completing his active duty in the Army, Edgar remained active in the reserves, retiring in 1995 as a Colonel after 30 years of service.
At the University of South Carolina, Walter Edgar earned the M.A. and the Ph.D. degrees. Within three years he was an assistant professor there, beginning the four decades of teaching he concluded in 2012.
He sings the praises of the broadcast network which has been such a large part of his life and career. “South Carolina ETV is a wonderful asset to this state. Much of what goes on there is largely unknown by the general public, with its huge outreach and training facilities for law enforcement and for education.” Another element earning his praise centers on what modern technology has done for the writer. Those who remember White-Out and carbon paper can relate to his enthusiasm for the tools of word processing. “When I bought an IBM Selectric typewriter, I thought I had the last word in technology,” he recalls. “It had a spell-check, and it counted the words! Imagine not having to count the words any more. Of course today’s writers think it is a dinosaur.”
Prestigious awards have come his way many times over the years. His articles and books and speeches have won recognition from two generations of scholars. Now at age 71, he has the luxury of choosing the projects that most appeal to him, and of indulging other interests. Walter Edgar’s first wife Betty Giles of Swansea SC died in 2005, and in 2007 he married Cornelia Danforth. Their blended family includes four daughters and five grandchildren. “As each grandchild reaches the age of nine, we take him or her on a trip with us. No siblings, no parents, just the three of us. They get to choose the place. The first one wanted to see the Grand Canyon, so we did Arizona that year. Then we took the next one to Washington DC and New York City. We’ll see what turns up for the others.” Is it possible these Edgar descendants are developing an interest in American history?
Walter and Nela take one big trip every year, 2015 being the year that they visited Australia and returned via cruise ship across the Pacific, visiting various islands.
He enjoys having time for his gardening hobby these days. The Columbia yard is green and lush and colorful. The Edgars divide their time between Columbia and Edisto, and he says gardening at the beach is a totally different experience. Both he and Nela are active at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, teaching and serving on committees. Notice the reference above to “positive and worthwhile?” That seems a pretty apt description of the life that has been created by South Carolina Historian Walter Edgar.
Birthplace: Mobile AL
Family: Wife Nela, four daughters, five grandchildren
Education: A.B. Davidson College, 1965
M.A. University of South Carolina, 1967
Ph.D. University of South Carolina, 1969
Awards and Achievements:
Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History, University of South Carolina, 2012
South Carolina Hall of Fame, 2007
Distinguished Alumnus Award, University of South Carolina, 2000
Order of the Palmetto, 1998
and 35 additional honors.
Carolina Favorites: Edisto Island, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, SC ETV, gardening.