My Life and Family
9 April 2011
Why I Became a Historian
My interest in history began as a child when I heard my father’s stories about serving in the US Navy in the 1920s and 1930s in the Pacific and when my mother and her family talked about their lives in rural Slovakia. I considered careers in music, architecture, and science, and I remember the laughter I heard when, as a high school student, I announced that I would major in history. I heard a steady chorus of “What are you going to do with that?” and “How will you live?” My future first mother-in-law was supportive, but still she recommended that I continue in college to get a usable professional degree and keep history as a hobby. Undaunted, I devoted all my energy into European history and political science as an undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh, thinking that if there are no job prospects in the end, I can always enter law school or move to business.
My dream shattered as I completed the final courses for my master’s degree when I realized that there were no jobs and that my first ex-wife and I were expecting our first baby. We moved from Champaign, Illinois, where I was at the University of Illinois, back to our home city of Pittsburgh, PA. There I found employment for a few months as a salesman and manager with a quick printer, but I then decided to study architecture. Before seeking admission to Carnegie-Mellon University, I thought some experience in contracting would be useful. I stayed in that profession for eight years. At first, I worked for a masonry restoration contractor as the assistant to the vice president of sales. Then I started my own company, Engineered Architectural Systems, as a manufacturers’ representative, focusing on products for concrete and masonry restoration and placement. I abandoned architecture because I realized that the prospects for employment in that field at the time were dismal. Still, the professions of the architects and civil engineers were a curiosity for me, in part because these were my clients. I remember how some were enthusiastic about their careers. One architect, Carl Detwiler, told me he would be happy if he only got to design people’s detached garages. A civil engineer once explained how he wanted to build buildings as a youth when he watched the so-called first Renaissance of Pittsburgh in the 1960s, and he was thrilled to be involved in every major building going up in the city at the time. I knew others who viewed designing and specifying buildings as a daily chore. One engineer wanted to know where I received my engineering degree. I tried to avoid the subject, telling him that I had majored in an unrelated field, fearing that he would take me less seriously if he knew I had a history degree. He persisted, assuming that I had an engineering degree in something other than civil engineering. I reasoned that if I was not direct, I would lose my credibility. I told him I had studied history, and he was ecstatic. He had wanted to study history, specifically the American Civil War, but was concerned about not having financial security. He eventually left his profession because he found his side job as an Amway distributor more interesting and just as lucrative. I met others who had dreamed of different careers but had ended up as engineers and contractors (the architects all seemed a happy lot), and I did not want to face each day wondering if I would have succeeded as a historian.
I already had begun taking one course each semester to complete my doctorate at the University of Pittsburgh simply with the hope of obtaining the degree as a matter of personal satisfaction. I thought perhaps I might teach a course on East-Central European and Balkan history from time to time. Nevertheless, after I had received a national grant in 1985 to prepare for my comprehensives and to do preliminary work on my dissertation, I let my business stagnate. At that time, I rejected a proposal to take over a profitable territory of a major national sealant manufacturer and declined a position as a manager for a fabrication plant that came with an offer to pay my expenses to obtain a degree in mechanical engineering. I closed my business after receiving a grant in 1986 for a year-long research sojourn in Czechoslovakia to gather information for my dissertation. Once I returned to the United States, I received a teaching fellowship at the University of Pittsburgh and additional national grants before taking a position in the autumn of 1990 as an assistant professor of European history at the University of West Florida.
Some thought in the late 1970s that I was being reasonable with my decision to move into construction and to do something “concrete” with my life. Those same individuals thought in the middle of the 1980s that I was foolhardy and irresponsible by not remaining in the business world. Although my financial position may have been rosier had I remained in the field of construction, I never would have entered the profession I love so much.