Although he always had an interest in history, Jack Hammersmith never planned to pursue a career in the discipline. Born in a small town in northern Ohio, Hammersmith made a few changes to his career path before he found the direction he wanted to take.
Hammersmith’s lifelong interest in history brought him to West Virginia University, where he taught as a professor in the Department of History for 48 years before retiring in June. Over his career, he taught classes in recent United States history and East Asian history. He was also the director of the West Virginia Consortium for Faculty and Course Development in International Studies, an organization that works to promote undergraduate and K-12 education in contemporary international issues and world languages.
Q: How did you become interested in history?
A: Well, I always loved history, but I really backed into being a history professor. I had been involved with journalism; [I was] co-editor of the school newspaper when I was in high school. So, I chose a university for its journalism program, but switched out of journalism before I had even taken my first course. After two years, I decided that university ought to be a little more intellectually challenging than some of the things that I was doing. So, I switched into political science, aiming toward law school. Then, even though I had been accepted into one law school and was in the process of being accepted into others, I decided that what I really loved was history.
I think it was primarily the impact of three teachers that I had. There was one in junior high and one in high school, but probably the most influential [was during] my junior year at Northwestern University, when I had [taken a course with] an outstanding diplomatic historian. I saw a whole new avenue open up for a profession, which was teaching history. So, having made some false starts, I then decided that that looked like something that would really interest me.
Q: On top of these influential teachers, were there any specific experiences that convinced you history was your field?
A: Well, I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in reading historical books. My parents were very good at taking me to — and in those days I felt as if they were dragging me to — historical sites, homes and so on and so forth. But all of that had a kind of cumulative impact, I think. When it came time to make that fateful decision, as I said I think it was that long-range love of history and the impact, not only of the specific historian I mentioned, but some other historians, too.
You know, I always try to tell my students, “Plan, but be prepared to take advantage of unexpected things.” I ended up [at West Virginia University] primarily teaching East Asian history — Chinese and Japanese. But, that really was a fluke. As a student, I really felt that a 10:30 a.m. class was about as early as I could manage. So I was looking for a course to fill in my requirements, and there were only two at 10:30 a.m. One was Puritan Colonial America — that seemed pretty dull. The other was Chinese history. I liked stir-fry, so I figured I would give it a shot [laughs]. So, I kind of backed into a specialization in East Asia. My teacher had a profound effect on me, and what I learned about teaching was that everyone has a different style. Everyone has a different approach; it depends on your personality.
The Chinese and Japanese historian — it was the same man — was just kind of a wild man. His wife was an artist at the Art Institute of Chicago, and one of the things she did was have people sit in paint and then sit on a Xerox machine. This was the art she did. Anyway, the professor I talked about first probably had the most profound effect, was very disciplined, very thorough, and serious about everything. But this guy was jovial and very loose in his approach. He was well organized but seemingly having more fun with it. So it was the personal impact that probably made the greatest influence in my change of direction.
Q: So, what brought you to WVU?
A: I was offered a job here and at a few other places, but [WVU] was very good, geographically. It was halfway between my parents and my wife’s parents, who lived in the D.C. area. A special advantage to being accessible to the nation’s capital was the wealth of historical sources at the Library of Congress and the National Archives. So that was an incentive, certainly, but the fact that it was my first concrete job offer was certainly the controlling reason that I came here.
Q: How have WVU and the students evolved since you first joined the faculty?
A: When I came here, of course, it was a very volatile and almost chaotic year —1968 — because during that time there were a lot of anti-Vietnam protests. The department had a very outspoken advocate for getting out of Vietnam, Dr. Wesley Bagby, who taught the diplomatic history courses. I had some students who were extremely active in something called the Mountaineer Freedom Party.
These students were very politically active, and that’s a big difference from today. Students, I think, do a lot more charitable volunteering these days.
It was pretty active around here. [There were] lots of demonstrations and some walks down to the courthouse, where a lot of speeches took place. I was one of the faculty members who worked with the police to try and make sure that everything was peaceful. And the police in Morgantown were wonderful. It was really quite peaceful here in contrast to other places.
Q: What would you consider your greatest accomplishment?
A: I think my greatest success has been my students- — having a lot of students who have enriched my life and whom I’ve been able to keep in touch with. I love to hear from them and to see them proceed in their lives, hopefully happily and fulfilled. I think that would be my greatest success. Also, maybe doing a little bit along the way to help them — through a course or a letter of recommendation. I’ve always enjoyed writing letters of recommendation, because I’ve always felt that it’s a very concrete and positive way I can have an impact. A grade’s a grade, and it gets lost in a sea of grades when all is said and done, but if I know a student well enough that I can be helpful in getting them a job or into graduate school, then I feel as though I’ve made an impact. These days it’s so easy to do with a computer! Back when you had to type out each letter [with a typewriter] it was a bigger commitment.
Q: Can you talk about your experiences teaching in Japan?
A: It was a wonderful experience! One of the greatest experiences of my life. We wanted our two daughters — and in 1983 they were 13 and 11 — to have a chance to experience another culture. You can take a trip, but in 10 days, or two weeks even, you can’t immerse yourself in the culture. You see some things, but you’re a little bit uncomfortable and you’re probably going to gravitate toward English speakers. But this was going to involve living in another place with far different culture and history.
I taught in three institutions in Tokyo, Japan. I taught at the University of Tokyo, which is the number-one school in Japan. Now, I hasten to point out that the only reason I taught at the number-one university was not because I was the number-one professor. They wanted someone to teach U.S. diplomatic history. Other institutions that had Fulbright scholars wanted somebody in law or sociology. So, I just lucked into the number-one school.
I also got to teach at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, so I got to teach diplomats and diplomats in-the-making. That was interesting, particularly when I got diplomats who had been posted overseas and were coming back after 10 or 15 years. They were really fascinating people. The students were interesting too, but [the diplomats] had much more seasoning to them. I also taught at the International Christian University, where Jay Rockefeller had studied Japanese for three years.
It was a wonderful experience for all of us. We lived in a Japanese neighborhood, and we developed good Japanese friends.
Just this summer, one of the two [girls] we call our Japanese daughters visited us. These women were two young kids when we lived there. We took each one for a year when they were in high school and hosted them here. We’ve gotten very close to them.
The whole Fulbright experience was really one of the highlights of my life. It really did tremendously enrich my teaching, my world view and my friendships in every way.
Q: Where do you think you would be now if you hadn’t gotten into the field of history?
A: Probably long since retired, because I can’t imagine I would be doing anything that I have enjoyed as much. I came from a small town — my dad was an insurance agent for 55 years. He started his own business, and I was the only little chick. The expectation was that I would take over the business. I wasn’t interested, and I didn’t really want to stay in the small town. I think that must have been hard on my father, because he had basically done this on his own. But on the other hand, his dad was a farmer and he didn’t want to be a farmer. So, he could see my point that maybe what I wanted was far different from what he wanted.
There was one point where I played with possibly being a historian in the government. I’m really glad I didn’t do that because I think you lose a high degree of independence. In a university, basically speaking, you set up your research profile and you can pretty much follow it. You have the luxury and the delight of being able to follow those ideas and paths that most interest you, and that’s wonderful.
Q: You said that you backed into being a teacher; when was the moment that you decided that was something you wanted to do?
A: It was actually in my senior year of college when I had been admitted to the Duke University School of Law and I was toying with maybe going to another law school — University of Michigan or elsewhere — and I realized that it didn’t feel right. I think part of it was, in those days, a lack of any kind of good counseling or advice. These days there are many aspects of the law, you can go into environmental law, public interest law — you don’t have to be a small-town lawyer who does a divorce this week and a will next week. I came from a small town and that was my reference. But, I really loved history and I really admired my professors.
I’ll never forget this Henry Adams quote, and I used to use it when I would apply for one thing or another. Henry Adams was a historian, part of the famous Adams family, but he wrote this marvelous memoir, “The Education of Henry Adams.” In the memoir he said, since he had a crack at teaching at Harvard, “I could teach my students nothing, I was only educating myself at their expense.” Well, I hope I haven’t just educated myself at my students’ expense, but there is that self-education. The opportunity to pop over to the library, go to the archives or enrich yourself — it makes you a more interesting person, and I think it makes you a better teacher. Hopefully it should also fit into your research profile.
You know, I’ve been very lucky to sometimes win awards, but I’ve enjoyed it whether that has been the case or not. It’s been fun, and I’ve had some great students.
I look downtown and I see a number of folks who are still around and who still speak to me, so I guess I didn’t do a terrible job. I’m still in touch with a variety of students, and it’s been fun. I think one of the most satisfying things there is to see where your students have gone and what they’ve done.