Look around. If you chose seven belongings whose stories would impart an understanding of who you are and the life you’ve lived, what would those things be?
Story Slim Smith | Photographs Luisa Porter
To suggest that Mississippi State University psychology professor Tom Carskadon is a something of an institution on campus is not much of a stretch. Now in his 43rd year at the university, the immensely popular professor has done the math.
By the time the 2016 class of freshmen graduate, Carskadon will have been on campus for a full one-third of the university’s existence. MSU was founded in 1878.
At 68, the dapper, angular and soft-spoken professor fully expects to reach that milestone and not slow down.
“I fully expect to be here when I die,” he says. “I can’t think of anything I could do (in retirement) that would bring me as much pleasure as what I am doing now.”
A look at Carskadon’s Seven Things shows an almost reverential sense of nostalgia and a buoyant optimism for what lies ahead — telling the story of a man who looks back and ahead with equal enthusiasm.
1. Carskadon is a creature of habit, and nowhere is this more evident than his dress. Every day he dresses in a BLUE OXFORD DRESS SHIRT and NECKTIE, a tie often selected for a specific occasion. His favorite day of the year — “better than Thanksgiving, Christmas, Independence day,” — is the first day of classes in the fall. For that occasion, he wears a tie that features the countries of the world, two young people and a field of stars. The stars represent the unexplored new dimensions that education reveals to his students. As for the shirt, there are two stories — one the truth, another a myth that has grown up around it. The true story: “I’ve been wearing a blue Oxford shirt every day since 1966,” he says. “My now-deceased wife said the color looked good on me and that I should wear it every day. I don’t think she meant it literally, but that’s how it’s turned out to be.”
The other version, one that he makes little effort to refute, is a more fanciful tale, a fabrication based on a real incident. When his daughter was 2 years old, Carskadon backed his car over the child as he was leaving for work one day. In his terrified state, he rushed to his daughter who had miraculously escaped serious injury. That’s the true part. The myth is that, as he examined his daughter there on the driveway, he made a vow to God that, if he would spare his daughter, he would wear a blue shirt every day as a reminder of that providence. “That story is far more interesting than the truth,” he says. “So even though I was wearing a blue shirt every day for years before that accident, I’ve never really tried to stop it. It’s such a good story, after all.”
2. In the organized chaos that is his office at Magruder Hall, Carskadon retrieves two items. One is a CATALOGUE for MSU’s First Year Experience (FYE) seminar program, the other is a copy of a psychology magazine that he has edited for the past 33 years, THE JOURNAL OF PSYCHOLOGICAL TYPE, a periodical based on his own pioneering work on the subject. Together, they represent the scope of his professional career, he says. Most senior faculty, Carskadon notes, have no interest at all in dealing with freshman or first-year transfers. “I think they see them as students who don’t know anything, don’t understand their surroundings, what they are being asked to do. It’s a burden. But I see it just the opposite,” says Carskadon who has been an eager leader in the university’s FYE programs since the initial program was started in 1987 and has attended 27 of the last 28 national conferences on the topic. “To me, it’s such a wonderful, exciting time for those young people,” says Carskadon, who refers to his students as “scholars.”
3. The TEAC REEL-TO-REEL TAPE DECK, which Carskadon prominently displays in his home, is both a nod to the nostalgia of his youth and a symbol for his young students to embrace. “When I bought it, it was the latest, best in high-fidelity audio,” he says. “Now, of course, it’s sort of a relic, but it’s a beautiful piece of equipment.” It is also a reminder of his college days at Oberlin College, where he was a student DJ. “It was the 1960s, a great time in music,” he says. “I was never going to be a professional DJ, but I loved music, and being a DJ for the student radio station gave me an opportunity to do something I never would have been able to do otherwise. That’s what I tell my students: Look around you. There are so many things to do, so many experiences you can have, and this may be your only opportunity to explore those things.”
The university experience, he says, should not be narrowly confined to academics, but should be an opportunity for exploration. The old TEAC machine is a reminder of that, he says.
4. Since his childhood in New Jersey, Carskadon has been a car lover. He estimates that he has owned 40 cars. Currently he has two. One is his LINCOLN MKZ, which her refers to as his “foolish carriage.” The other is his VOLKSWAGEN EOS, a hard-top convertible with a vanity plate that reads “DREAMVW.” The Lincoln, he says, was a purchase influenced by a past romantic relationship. The VW, by contrast, pays homage to the first car he fell in love with as a kid. “It was a 1955 Mercury Sun Valley, a hard-top convertible. When I was 10, I remember seeing that car in the showroom of a dealership we drove by every day,” he says. “I thought it was the most wonderful car ever made. The Volkswagen reminds me of that ‘dream car.’”
5. Carskadon’s love of automobiles in not confined to his garage. His office and home are strewn with MODEL CARS — 200, he estimates. “When the right woman comes along, I may have to make other accommodations for the cars at home,” he says. “Faithful in love, fickle in cars, as the saying goes.” He began his model car collection as a concession of sorts. “Years ago, I tried a few times to buy old cars with the idea of restoring them,” he says. “That didn’t really work out very well, so I decided the next best thing was model cars. They are inexpensive and don’t require any work. So, to me, it’s a practical way to own all those old cars I’ve always loved.”
6. Carskadon pulls the object down from its spot on his desk. At first glance, it appears to be simply an old, scuffed-up red FRISBEE, and you wonder why so common a toy in such poor condition would warrant veneration. “Look closer,” he says. “See what’s printed on it? It says ‘Wham-O Pluto Platter.’” Carskadon says it is a 1957 model of the toy that, in 1958, was rebranded as “Frisbee” and has become one of the most popular toys of all time. Carskadon owns one of the first models of that toy ever produced.
“When I was at summer camp in Island Pond, Vermont, David Hopkins’ mother gave every kid in the Trail Side cabin one of these,” he says. “I never met David Hopkins’ mother, but I’ll never forget her. She made eight or 10 kids in that summer camp the happiest boys in the world that day.”
7. In addition to the blue oxford shirt and tie, there is one other item that Carskadon wears every day. It is a small, GOLD PIN, commemorating his 40 years at Mississippi State. “The number, 40, is significant for me in several ways,” he says. “First, I’ve been here for 40 years and counting. During that time, I’ve taught 40,000 students, and I’ve owned 40 cars. It’s a good number.”