The historian within Mike Lunsford and his storyteller side coexist like the right and left rails of a train track.
History’s details and lessons often shape Lunsford’s columns in the Tribune-Star. His popular writings over the past quarter-century have been compiled into a series of books. The seventh and latest, “This Old World,” was released this month. It features more than 50 stories, written in a span from the winter of 2017 through the first weeks of 2020.
It’s “a reflection about what it means to be human,” as fellow author and Eric Hoffer Award winner Jim McGarrah says on the book’s back cover.
The collection emerges from a new chapter in Lunsford’s life, retirement. The longtime teacher of English, humanities and American history concluded that career at Riverton Parke High School in 2018. “I miss seeing the kids and having that back and forth, and learning from them,” he said Monday.
Still, waking up on his own schedule, working on the rural Rosedale home where he and his wife, Joanie, live, writing about and photographing their Parke County surroundings and beyond, and entertaining their grandchildren keep him busy and smiling. “I have loved it,” the 64-year-old Lunsford said of retirement.
His topics are often as close by as the bluebirds flitting in and out of a nesting box Lunsford affixed to a storage barn in his yard. Or, the subjects can emanate from a distant location, like a beach house along Lake Michigan. In each case, Lunsford’s five senses help tell a story, along with a sixth sense of perceiving the historical elements.
Or, he may be writing about something as wonderfully pedestrian as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. One entry in “This Old World” involves Lunsford corresponding with a friend about what constitutes a proper PB&J. Their exchange centered on Lunsford’s flexibility on the jelly element of the sandwich and his revelation that he’s OK with any version, from apple jelly to blackberry or even the mysterious “mixed fruit jelly.” His buddy jokingly affirmed that Welch’s grape jelly was a must, and Lunsford’s indifference “Philistine,” in Mike’s words.
Where’s the historical twist in that one? Lunsford recalls a character from the “Andy Griffith Show” offering his PB&J sandwich to everybody on the streets of Mayberry, with no takers. A fruitless effort.
Some stories dive directly into history, such as Lunsford recounting the legend of “eclectic” Parke County physician Wallace W. “Doc” Wheat. The doctor tended to residents there through the first half of the 20th century, relying on botanical medicines. Wheat owned a car, but never drove, leaving that to others. Yet, he walked barefoot to medical conventions in far-flung cities. Or so the legends go, Lunsford points out.
History remains a passion for Lunsford.
He just finished the A.J. Baime book “Dewey Defeats Truman,” focusing on the 1948 presidential race. With that one done, Lunsford just started reading “Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times,” an 1,088-page project by author David S. Reynolds.
“Lincoln is it, for me,” Lunsford said. “Lincoln is just a fascinating person.”
The messages in history, good and bad, inspire Lunsford and many of his columns and feature stories. He laments a diminishing level of concern for history’s lessons.
“We’ve become so willfully dismissive of the past,” he said.
So, Lunsford spices his writings with his own past, from the generations of his parents and grandparents, to his present of walks through the woods with his grandson.
“I still find those topics appeal to people, from their parents and grandparents and the things instilled in us,” he said. “You hear their voices in your head all the time.”
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or email@example.com.