In the wake of Dr. Vardaman’s passing, we asked alumni to share their stories and memories of him, and the following is a collection of those stories. We are grateful for Dr. Vardaman, and the impact he had on every single one of us. We hope these stories will make you laugh, smile and look back fondly on this incredible man.
Gene Richardson, M.D.
In 1982 we were fortunate to attend the Baylor in the British Isles program under the direction of Dr. Vardaman. Both Mary and I audited the British History course taught by Dr. Vardaman. When I attended Baylor many years ago, history was not a subject I enjoyed. Hearing Dr. Vardaman lecture, however, made history come alive. It is not unusual for young people to be stimulated by a professor like Dr. Vardaman, but for me as a 50-year-old it was a truly memorable and enlightening experience that changed my life. At Baylor and in medical school I had taken primarily science courses. Following Dr. Vardaman’s course, I realized that I did not have a liberal education. This prompted me to change my life style. I partially retired with plans to travel enriching my education. The course that we took that summer in England enriched my life. I owe a great debt to Jim Vardaman.
Chana Beene, CLU
When I arrived at Baylor in 1983, Dr. Vardaman was one of my first professors and I took his Western Civilization course. I had graduated in top 1% of my class at Katy High School and felt pretty confident in academics. Dr. Vardaman was an outstanding lecturer and I really enjoyed his classes. However, being a finance major, I was not an astute essay writer and received a “C” on my first exam. The next exam was better at a “B”. I went into to talk with Dr. Vardaman and inquired on what I needed to concentrate on and how I could better my answers on his exams. He was quite gracious and explained to me that he graded on increasing and overall knowledge; and that if I made an “A” on the final, I would receive an “A” in the class. Never before had I studied and learned so much in a class. I did get the “A” in the class and recounted this conversation to my kids who also went to Baylor. Even to this day, my son at Baylor and daughter in law school will meet with their professors to gain knowledge and mastery of courses. Many years after graduating from Baylor I ran into Dr. Vardaman at tennis matches and also reminded him of this conversation and how he made an indelible impression upon me. I am very thankful for having him as one of my professors.
I first met Jim at Texas Christian University when I studied for my history major. Sitting under his teaching has always been a special memory.
In 1981, I was hired as a Development Officer at Baylor University. At that time I renewed my friendship with Jim. Both of my children traveled with Jim on his summer trips to the British Isles. In the summer of 1988, Jane and I also went on the trip.
I knew Jim was an authority on political, economic, and religious history. However, I soon realized that the breath of his knowledge was far greater than the traditional fields of history.
About 10 years ago, Jim started a Wednesday lunch group. Among my favorite memories of Jim at these lunches was his knowledge of music and his singing. He had a very good voice.
Several years ago the Baylor Symphony performed a major work by a German composer that no one in the group knew anything about. We asked Jim about this composer and he talked for twenty minutes about him. He gave dates of his life, where he lived, who were his friends, and many other interesting facts.
Wally Christian, a retired religion professor and opera lover, was in this lunch group. At one lunch, Wally mentioned the operetta “Roberta” and Jim replied that “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” was the hit song from that operetta. Then the two of them burst out singing “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” For twenty minutes Wally and Jim recalled operettas such as Desert Song, Tea for Two, The Merry Widow and others. As they recalled each operetta they sang the hit songs.
Sometimes Wally would mention an opera and Jim would recall an aria from the opera. Again, the two of them would sing the aria in Italian, French, or German.
I have never known anyone who had the breadth of knowledge and the ability to recall this information better than Jim. Jim’s lunch group will continue, but with a deep sense of loss that he is not here each Wednesday.
Give me a teacher and I can acquire a body of knowledge. Give me a professor and I can gain understanding. Ah, but give me a mentor and I can learn to think for myself.
Jim Vardaman taught that way and that’s why he’s my favorite. In his Renaissance and Reformation class he led sixteen of us from various disciplines of the university. We taught the class: picking a topic, doing the background reading, assigning readings to the others, then leading the discussion under Dr. Vardaman’s generally benevolent gaze. It was thrilling at age twenty to be led into thinking.
Because of that experience, I eagerly signed up for his class in the Baylor in London program, having graduated and with the summer off. At our quarters in Westminster School I dutifully did what a student did: go to class. After the second day, Dr. Vardaman pulled me aside and sternly asked me what I was doing, sitting in class. “Get out there!” he said, gesturing to the Parliament buildings, “Go!!”
And so I did.
I had the honor of traveling with Baylor on a week-long cruise on the Danube in the summer of 2008. Everyday we got to hear Dr. Vardaman recount events so familiar that centuries-old details were recalled as if they were just occurring. One day we visited the town of Durnstein in Austria’s Wachau Valley and medieval times came alive as we entered the monastery through extremely thick masonry walls. Dr. Vardaman told stories. One of which was of King Richard of England returning from the Crusades and being held prisoner in Durnstein after upsetting the local lords. This, he reminded us, was why the king’s brother, John, had time to stir up unrest at home that gave us Robin Hood. Marianne and I left the group and walked up to the top of the hill to see the small prison that once held King Richard.
At the bortom of the hill we caught up with Dr. Vardaman and Betsy as they were walking between the old town and the tourist area where souvenirs could be purchased. As we walked, Dr. Vardaman started talking about earlier trips that he had taken and, in particular, the Baylor in London trip that Marianne had been on. Marianne and Betsy moved a few paces ahead when he started talking about Marianne’s then boyfriend. He continued talking about how satisfying it is for him to travel with students and learn that they find their best travelling companions.
On that short walk through a Wachau Valley vineyard Dr. Vardaman showed me that his capacity to absorb history was exceeded only by his capacity to love. He never took his eyes off of Betsy and it was obvious that his favorite place to travel was anywhere with her.
David C. Kent
I only took one history class from Dr. Vardaman, as a freshman in 1971-72. But I came to know him and his wife, Betsy, through other students and friends, and have been privileged to call them friends for the past 40+ years.
I have long said that of all the teachers and professors I ever had – from elementary school through law school and beyond – Dr. Vardaman stood out as the single most mesmerizing and awe-inspiring. After finishing his class, I wrote him a note telling him so – something I never did before or since. His was a rare and special talent, matched only by his rare and special character.
Rest in Peace, Jim Vardaman. You will be missed.
Carroll W. Fadal
Dr. Vardaman not only was one of my favorite professors at Baylor, he was one of my favorite people on the planet. While a student, I also worked full-time at the Waco Tribune-Herald, and Dr. Vardaman was a daily Trib reader. We shared several political conversations, particularly about the Middle East, during my four years at Baylor. Years later, every time I would see him, mostly at Baylor baseball games, he would smile and exclaim, “Kill the messenger.” I always looked forward to that greeting and to the ensuing conversations.
Lelland Bussey, BU 72
Dr. Vardaman was kind and caring to me as a scared freshman in 1968. I didn’t do to well on my first test in his class and I went to see him during his office hours. He reviewed my test booklet with me, pointed out where I could improve and took the time to console my fears. Ended up doing fine in the class and every time I saw him on campus he remembered my name and always with a smile. I thought he was one cool guy and his no note lectures were a thing to watch. Amazing memory, great man!
Susan Baker Anderson – BA in History 1993
Oh what a dear man! I loved taking Dr. Vardaman’s classes and travelled to Baylor in the British Isles with him. He personally handwrote lengthy recommendations for me when I was applying to law schools. He was such a blessing to Baylor and his students!
3 thoughts on “Remembering Dr. Jim Vardaman”
I loved reading these tributes to Dr. Vardaman who I met once several years ago thanks to Babs Baugh who arranged for him to speak to the Sonshine Singers when we were in Waco. I wish I had travelled with him too on a Baylor in the British Isles. Thanks for compiling and posting these loving tributes to an outstanding Baylor professor.
I have a number of fond memories from Dr. Vardaman. I was able to take his English history from 1603 class early during my time at Baylor, and it truly changed the course of my life. I added a history double major (no minors in those days) and became determined to take a Vardaman class whenever possible.
Some of my favorites:
(1) Dr. Vardaman always asked everyone where they were from and was usually right about the derivation of their names. He never seemed to forget a student’s name or story. One of the upperclassmen who sat in front of me was named “Gowdy”. Of course, Dr. Vardaman asked him if he was related to the sportscaster (he wasn’t). That student was Trey Gowdy, the congressman. Perhaps needless to say, Dr. Vardaman and (later Congressman) Gowdy had some humdingers of debate from time to time. For me, their debates were more entertaining than watching Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe play tennis.
(2) He always advised students heading into a teaching career never to bore students. We’d all agree that he epitomized that academic excitement over the decades. I’ve been through a lot of courses through the years, but now thirty odd years later I can remember the books Dr. Vardaman had for our classes. I’ve had the opportunity to teach over the years, and I always remember his advice (even though I could never duplicate his intellect).
(3) I never again will say the phrase “at this point in time.” He HATED it when people expressed such redundancy.
(4) I will always regret never having the opportunity to travel with him to the British Isles. However, his friendship with MP Bernard Braine was a blessing, since Braine often visited Vardaman in Waco and was a featured guest in many of Vardaman’s classes. For me, a kid from a dried up mill town in NC, these visits provided a world view I never would have had.
I will always be most grateful to Baylor for having the opportunity to have Jim Vardaman for a professor and lifelong mentor.
As a history major at Baylor, I took several classes with Dr. Vardaman in his first few years at Baylor. He was one of my favorites. The class I recall most vividly was an English history class. The books he assigned were beyond the usual textbooks, including one about castles, their layout and the life that took place inside of them. After graduation in 1970, I traveled to Europe with a friend. Everywhere we went in England was familiar from Dr. Vardaman’s course, and I thought of him often. I talked with Jim on some of my return visits to Baylor over the years. He never failed to remember me, and we had some great conversations about our shared academic careers. Recently I retired, and one of my hopes was to be able to finally travel on one of his alumni tours. I feel so sad to have missed this final opportunity to learn from one of my Baylor favorites. Jim Vardaman will be greatly missed and fondly remembered.