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?
Mississippi State University professor emeritus John Marszalek embraced the challenge of a foray into his personal history with the enthusiasm of, well, a historian.
1. When John Marszalek’s parents married in 1929, they soon realized they wouldn’t be having any children. It wasn’t for lack of trying. They saw doctors, considered experimental procedures; his mother even made a pilgrimage from her home in Buffalo, N.Y., to the Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré near Quebec City, Canada. Named for the grandmother of Jesus, the shrine has been credited with miracles throughout its 350-year existence. For Regina Marszalek, no miracles appeared to be in the offing. It didn’t matter that her brothers were Catholic priests, either, or so it seemed. One of them, Benny, had the opportunity to study at the Vatican. While in Rome, Benny sent his sister a Christmas card on which he wrote in small, delicate script, “May the little Jesus grant you what you desire so much.” Shortly thereafter Regina became pregnant with the first of what would be five children. That first child, John, now an eminent history professor still has the card from Uncle Benny that his mother credited with a miracle. “Sometimes you can pray too much,” Marszalek joked about his mother’s deferred fertility.
2. His father wanted his son to play the violin. Violin teachers were scarce in Buffalo, N.Y., but the proprietor of a local music store had accordions and knew a teacher. Young John started taking accordion lessons in the fifth grade, and by high school he was playing parties. He used the money he earned to help pay for college, and the experience of getting out and meeting people was invaluable, he said. “It opened up the world for me.”
3. Marszalek met his wife of 48 years, Jeanne, while he was at Notre Dame working on his dissertation (on Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman). At the time she was a fourth grade teacher in South Bend. Years later when the university remodeled its stadium, Jeanne bought her husband one of the box seat chairs from the old stadium.
4. The Marszaleks moved south to Starkville in 1973, the year after John published the first of what would be more than a dozen books. Set in the 19th century, Court Martial is the story of Johnson Whittaker, one of the first black cadets at West Point, who was assaulted and falsely accused of faking the incident. In 1994, more than 20 years after its publication, Showtime produced a docudrama based on the book starring Sam Waterson and Samuel L. Jackson. John and Jeanne were extras in the film. The film led to the granting of a posthumous commission to Whittaker presented to his heirs by President Bill Clinton. The Marszaleks attended the White House ceremony.
5. In 1981 Marszalek and Clyde Williams coached The Red Devils, a 12-and-under boys soccer team on which their sons played. After each win, the players were treated to a mid-field victory dance by their coaches. “I’ve never seen two grown-up men act so silly,” Jeanne said about the coaches’ post-game antics. Silly though it may have been, the Red Devils won the state championship that year.
6. Hanging with the prints and photographs covering the walls of Marszalek’s study are his grandfather’s crosssaw and his father’s meat cleaver — his father owned a grocery store and did the butchering. “When I feel sorry for myself,” he said, “I look at these things and think of people who really worked.”
7. For more than a decade Marszalek was mentor and director of the Distinguished Scholars program at MSU. On his retirement from that position, the senior class of distinguished scholars gave John and his collaborator, Jeanne, a chrome cowbell inscribed to both of them. About the gift and recognition Marszalek said, “That came to represent all the students we had over the years. Often they came from small towns. We would encourage them to meet their potential. We helped them realize they could compete with the best students in the country.”