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NMSU professor receives honorary degree with noted authors, Pulitzer Prize winner

A Carlsbad, N.M. native, Dwight T. Pitcaithley never thought his summer jobs as a teenager back in the 1970s would lead to a life-long profession.

NMSU professor Dwight Pitcaithley received an honorary doctor of laws degree from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on Sunday, May 8 along with notable American authors and a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. (NMSU Photo by Darren Phillips)

"I can honestly say that my career in the National Park Service began cleaning toilets at Carlsbad Caverns, both on the surface and 750 feet underground," Pitcaithley said. "I did that for a summer, picked up trash for a summer, did jackhammer work, hard labor for a summer there. My last summer was as a guide in uniform. When I left the Park Service as a seasonal worker I had no intentions of coming back."

Pitcaithley, a history professor at New Mexico State University, did go back. He spent 30 years as a historian for the National Park Service, ending his career as its chief historian from 1995-2005. He earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in history at Eastern New Mexico University and received his doctorate at Texas Tech University.

As NMSU graduates prepared for the weekend's commencement ceremonies, Pitcaithley finalized his plans to cross the stage on Sunday, May 8 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to receive an honorary doctor of laws degree, along with five other notable recipients. John Grisham, author of 25 books, including numerous legal thrillers, and Ernest Gaines, considered one of the premier American writers in the second half of the 20th century and best known for his "Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman," received honorary doctor of letters degrees; Edward O. Wilson, a Harvard University professor and two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, received an honorary doctor of science degree; and Mary Sue Coleman, president of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and Timothy Burnett, a prominent North Carolina businessman, received doctor of laws degrees.

"I'm deeply pleased, surprised, delighted and honored that the University of North Carolina saw fit to grant me this award," Pitcaithley said.

"One works in any field for a career, not for the awards but to do the best job they can. It's sort of an affirmation that I was on the right track, that the Park Service was on the right track for all those years. It is an honor."

Jon Hunner, NMSU history professor and history department head, helped to recruit Pitcaithley to the university back in 2005.

"This honor from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is well deserved," Hunner said. "Dr. Pitcaithley is an internationally renowned public historian who helped transform our nation's understanding of the Civil War when he was chief historian of the National Park Service. He is a valued member of the Department of History and continues to impact our understanding of the past through his teaching, his collegiality and his scholarship."

Pitcaithley survived a challenging political and bureaucratic environment during his years as chief historian. In the early 2000s, he intervened in a very public controversy over the interpretation of slavery at the Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia. Local Park Service officials proposed a new exhibit focused on the Liberty Bell's history without making any connection between the bell and the country's struggles with equality in the context of a nation built on slave labor.

Pitcaithley strongly spoke out against the proposed exhibit and instead worked with a coalition of historians from across the country to come up with a more thoughtful approach for the presentation.

"It improved it because it brought new thinking, instead of being celebratory of the Liberty Bell, it looked at how different people can view the Liberty Bell differently and how liberty to one person may be something quite different to another person. The exhibit explores that," Pitcaithley said. "I think it is a much more mature and thought-provoking exhibit now than it would have been before."

Pitcaithly was born in Carlsbad, N.M. in 1944 and his mother still lives there today. When he retired about five years ago and was looking for an academic position, Pitcaithley gravitated toward the Southwest.

"I wanted to teach. I had been teaching at George Mason University in Northern Virginia and I knew Jeff Brown (interim associate dean for the College of Arts and Sciences) and Jon Hunner," said Pitcaithley. "The more I talked to Jon and Jeff, the more I liked the idea of coming to NMSU. Plus, Jon agreed to teach me how to juggle, which I haven't mastered yet. I'm a work in progress."

A scholar, researcher and prolific writer with dozens of publications to his credit, Pitcaithley also is an evangelist for the preservation of history as a tool for teaching. As its chief historian, Pitcaithley pushed the Park Service to realize its potential to inspire, inform and educate the public in what has been called America's largest outdoor history classroom.

"I'm a public historian," Pitcaithley said, "My career was spent with a public agency working with history for public consumption, not for academic consumption: exhibits, films brochures, that sort of thing. To my way of thinking we all ought to be public historians at some level, and I try to impart that to my students."

"We are very fortunate to have Dr. Pitcaithley among our many talented faculty," said Christa Slaton, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. "To have another highly regarded scholar with such a passion for history here at NMSU is a great benefit for our students."

With the centennial of the National Park Service approaching in 2016, Pitcaithley continues to speak out, urging more financial support for a system in dire need of funding. He encourages individuals and groups to support the Park Service and its mission, either through letters to Congress or volunteer work.

Pitcaithley insists the organization could not survive without volunteers and says the best way to find out how to help is to contact the nearest national park and ask what they need.

"Ultimately the Park Service is not a preservation organization. It's an education organization. We collectively don't preserve these places to preserve them. We preserve them because they have stories to tell and we have things to learn from those stories," Pitcaithley said.

"The better the Park Service can manage these places and develop the educational package and take care of the buildings and the objects, the archaeological remains and so forth, the higher quality those stories will be and the better off we'll be for having learned them."