Photo by Aaron McDowell.
Bud Robertson gives his first lecture of the fall semester at Virginia Tech.
I checked my watch before heading into the coffee shop. I have 20 minutes before class, I thought to myself. Plenty of time – it's just across the street.
And caught myself. It's been a long time since I've thought a thought like that… I've got 20 minutes until class… I've got five minutes to make it to Keezell Hall… there's enough time between music theory and English to eat lunch…
The end result was a certain amount of nostalgia as I opened the door to Bollo's Cafe in Blacksburg for a cup of coffee. I'd driven from Roanoke, miraculously found a parking space outside a fraternity house six blocks away, and was getting ready to attend Dr. James I. "Bud" Robertson, Jr.'s first lecture of the fall semester in his Civil War class at Virginia Tech.
This is a coffee house worthy of a college town. You fill your own cup and it's strong stuff. It's a little past 8:30 in the morning and the clientele are students on their way to class (like me), professor-types sitting with the New York Times or laptops, multiply pierced young people sitting outside the shop. There is bread – I request a potato bread kind of roll that I eventually eat on the drive back to Roanoke – and various baked items. It's not a big place, there's no central decorative theme, and the barristas are nice, young and smart.
But that's not why I'm in Blacksburg, so after I fill a pretty large cup I head out and across College Avenue to Squires and upstairs to Colonial Hall to wait for class to start.
There are students milling about, some in cadet uniforms, waiting for the class before theirs (ours) to let out, and when it does there's a small flood into a large, wide lecture hall. Bud Robertson is not here yet. Students keep arriving, sitting down, filling much of the hall. Around 300 students take this class every semester, Robertson has told me. And for the next hour, they sit, glued to his words, not fidgeting, not whispering, just listening. I hear a few laptop keyboards clicking, but even at this high-tech university, most note-takers are doing it the old-fashioned way, with pencils and paper.
He walks in. He's not young, and someone at first glance might make certain assumptions based on that, though he anticipates it: "You might think professors are dumb, senile and old," he tells the students by way of warning them they'd better make sure now, not in a couple months, that they don't have overlapping exams at the end of the semester. After he gets the housekeeping about attending class out of the way, he talks.
He mentions his documentary, which he just got a rough cut of by Fed-Ex from Blue Ridge Public Television. "It's good. I don't just say that because I'm executive producer." (The project is being produced in conjunction with the Virginia Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission and the Virginia Tech Center for Civil War Studies; Blue Ridge Country magazine is a media sponsor for the documentary.) He talks about the outtakes – "I've worked with Blue Ridge [PBS] many years, and they've always had hanging over my head – 'outtakes!' I've got a bundle, including times I've blasphemied – I've lost my patience and spoken expletives." He gives the students a sharp glance. "You know what I'm talking about!" They laugh.
In a lovely southern voice familiar to regional public radio listeners and Virginia Tech audiences and students over the years, he quietly and firmly talks about the Civil War, the center of his life in so many ways, for the rest of the period. About his opposition to re-enactments: "I am the Judas Iscariot of re-enactors, I guess." About his advising President John F. Kennedy on the Civil War centennial, then as a recent graduate of the University of Iowa: "He was a Boston Irishman with a short temper and pretty crude language," he remembers. "He was talking about what a mess the centennial was," and how could they fix it? (One recommendation, which Kennedy immediately took him up on, was disallowing any re-enactments on actual battlefrounds, federal protected soil.)
He talks about politics: the politics of the war, the politics of today, the politics of post-war – "the bunch of ding-dongs that came after Lincoln," as he puts it. The Confederate Constitution, he mentions, had some good points – most significantly, a single, six-year presidential term. "One president, six years. You get your money's worth with him."
Mostly, he brings the war to reality, into focus, into an emotional realm. "We'll start with chapter one in the textbook, which should come as no surprise," he says, but I get the distinct feeling that the rest of the semester will be far from the dry ink of a page.
Afterwards, I talk briefly with a couple students, both cadets (one, incidentally, a young white man from the north, the other a young black woman from the south).They're required to take Robertson's class, they tell me, but it doesn't seem like either considers it a hardship.
It's important to "not do the same mistakes they did, know your history," says Mark Walczyk, a New York senior majoring in political science.
Jessica Marshall, a senior from Virginia Beach, is taking her second class with Robertson. She's an international studies major, history minor. She says, "He's really passionate about the information he's teaching."