- Written by Ruth Laney
- Category: History
October 2009. LSU professor T. Harry Williams wrote a biography of Huey Long—and the rest is (oral) history.
If ever there was a legendary teacher at LSU, it was T. Harry Williams, who brought unaccustomed excitement to the history department from 1941 until 1979.
Williams didn’t look like a legend. A slight, balding, bespectacled man who puffed on a pipe, he nonetheless mesmerized students with his dramatic and witty accounts of moments long past.
Williams had it all—meticulous attention to detail merged with the soul of a raconteur. He was a Boyd Professor by 1953, and way before that he had students practically fighting to get into his classes.
“Williams would engage his auditors with rapid-fire volleys in a conversational voice off the cuff without lectern, text, or notes,” recalled student Harold McSween. “He knew what he wanted to say, and he said it without missing a beat.”
It wasn’t easy getting into a course taught by T. Harry, as he was universally known. Students arranged their schedules around his classes on the Civil War and southern history. Those who were not so lucky often gathered in the hallway outside the classroom, straining to catch the words as they fell from his lips.
“He was just so natural,” said Winnie Byrd, a student in the 1940s. In a taped interview, Byrd recalled, “He was very informal in his attire as well as his manner, but he was very structured. … He had that gorgeous sense of humor that would just crack you up … He was so captivating that he didn’t have to work hard to hold your attention, really.”
In addition to teaching, Williams was widely published and well reviewed. His 1952 study Lincoln and His Generals was a Book of the Month Club selection. But all his previous works were eclipsed by Huey Long, published in 1969 and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for biography and the National Book Award for history and biography.
Exhaustively researched and crisply written, the Long book pioneered the use of oral history. Lugging a thirty-pound Webster Electric Ekotape reel-to-reel tape recorder, Williams tracked down and talked to some 295 persons, both pro- and anti-Long, during the dozen years he worked on the book.
Each interview had to be transcribed, a task that often fell to Williams’s wife Estelle, who taught English at LSU.
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