Hugh F. Rankin, Ph.D.
1913 – 1989
(Photograph by Matt Anderson)
I’ve written before about my father and the lessons of respect I learned from him. He was an amazing man who I continue to miss and think of every day of my life.
It’s ironic that I have always been so much in awe of one of the most approachable men to have ever walked the earth, but then again, irony was the story of his life. He was an intellectual who never left behind his semi-rural roots. He was a prolific author of scholarly works whose favorite author was Louis L’Amour. His gruff words could never conceal the tenderness of his spirit.
Dad was raised in Reidsville, North Carolina, a small tobacco town just north of Greensboro. Playing Center (at a time that meant both offense and defense), he was the first All-State football player to emerge from Reidsville High. After spending a few years at Virginia Tech (or V.P.I. as Dad always called it) on an athletic scholarship, my father left school to work heavy construction and played some semi-pro football on the side. There was talk of playing professional ball, and there were plans of staring his own construction company, but those plans and dreams were not to be.
When World War II broke out, Dad tried to enlist, but was repeatedly rejected because he was in a “vital industry.” He eventually talked his boss into firing him so he could join the fight, but irony, as ever, interceded. He was assigned to the Corps of Engineers working in stateside construction projects (primarily building airfields). Nevertheless, he worked his way up to the rank of Second Lieutenant, and found something to make him glad he was not sent overseas; he met and married my mother.
After much lobbying, my father was eventually assigned to a unit that was to be sent overseas to work in the European Theatre of Operation. While training with the platoon he was to bring over, Dad sustained a serious back injury, and he spent the rest of the war in military hospitals.
The back injury changed my father’s life for better and worse. He defied a prediction that he would be unable to walk within the following ten years, but he was not without constant pain for the remainder of his life. Although he often mentioned the pain, it was always in a matter-of-fact way. I never heard Dad complain about it or wallow in self-pity. He did what he could to make it more bearable, and lived with what he could not change.
After his injury, my father could not return to the construction work he was so good at. He lived with his wife and young son in Reidsville where he tried his hand at carpentry and furniture making, but he really wasn’t very good at it. Dad was offered a position as a football coach at his old high school, but first he had to complete his degree so he could teach an academic subject as well. So he enrolled in Elon College to study education and history. By that time, there was a second son. At the urging of a professor, Dad made the decision to go on to graduate school in history at the University of North Carolina, where he was named as one of the original Morehead scholars (although it is now an undergraduate program, the original scholars included graduate students).
While Dad was still completing his doctorate, he accepted a research position with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. It was in Williamsburg that a third son (yours truly) was born to the Rankin family. It was also there that Dad co-wrote what became one of the most highly regarded books about the American Revolution: Rebels and Redcoats.
We moved to New Orleans after my father was offered a faculty position at Tulane University. Over the course of 26 years, he established himself as an outstanding scholar and writer (he was designated as the W.R. Irby Professor of History), a beloved teacher (who was nicknamed “Big Daddy” by his graduate students), and a voice of reason who represented the academic faculty with the athletic department and vice versa.
He published prolifically (unfortunately at a time before historians like Stephen Ambrose made it financially profitable). The impact he had on his students and his peers was remarkable. The impact he had on his sons was profound.
Dad was physically unable to do so many of the little things that come with being a father: no carrying his son on his shoulders, no playing football on the lawn, no bike rides. But there are a thousand other memories I have: sitting on the Ferris wheel at Pontchartrain Beach Amusement Park with my father’s arm around me, the visits to his office, walking hand-in-hand to kindergarten, exploring historic sites in Virginia with the greatest of guides, watching football games on television, and a lot of fishing trips. Dad took joy in sharing his interests with me, and equal joy in sharing my interests. And sometimes we just shared a presence with each other, sitting silently on the porch of a beach house, watching the ocean waves.
I have come to the conclusion that one learns good parenting in two ways: having great parents, and having great children. It is my blessing to have had both great parents and great children, and the most important lessons from all of them have been much the same. Hopes and dreams ⎯ those you hold for yourself as well as those you hold for your children ⎯ are easily broken, so don’t stake too much on them. The good news is that hopes and dreams are replaceable. Together, parents and children can make lives better by moving forward together with open hearts and open minds.
Happy Fathers’ Day.