History of Panama Canal part of OLLI summer course schedule


By Chris McCarthy/Editor

Folks who might wish to enhance their knowledge of the history and construction of the Panama Canal won’t have very far to travel this summer.

As part of the University of Alabama-Gadsden Center’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) summer program, Dr. Linda York will teach The Mountains Divided/The Oceans United: The Story of the Panama Canal.

“I guess you could subtitle the course, From the French Fiasco to the American Success,” she said. “We’ll concentrate from 1870 to 1914.”

Other OLLI summer courses include Movie’s Great, but have You Read the Book?, Grits, Grains and Glory, Down on the Farm, Local History through Photographs, Introduction to Computers, History over Easy, The First Americans: From the Great Ice Age to European Contact, Two Presidents/Two Generals and Watering the Family Tree: Ongoing Genealogy. 

UA-Gadsden will host an open house and reception for the OLLI summer program on May 3 from 4 – 6 p.m. 

A Glencoe resident who spent 22 years teaching at Southside High School, York noted that that the monumental project was accomplished with a distinct local connection.

Much of the course will focus on the career of Gadsden native Maj. Gen. William L. Sibert (1860-1935), who was the U.S. Army’s Corp of Engineer’s chief engineer on the Atlantic side of the canal. He later commanded the U.S. Army’s 1st Combat Infantry Division, also known as the Big Red One, in France in 1917 during the First World War. After the war Sibert was named head of the U.S. Army’s Chemical Warfare Service. Camp Sibert, a U.S. Army base located in present-day Rainbow City and Attalla, was named after him. 

“I want to tell the whole story about the building on the Panama Canal, but I also want to talk about the Alabama and specifically the Gadsden connections. In the words of another historian, [the Panama Canal project] was the equivalent of our generation’s putting a man on the moon for the early 1900’s.”

Dr. York pointed out that Sibert was far from the only Southerner involved in the Panama Canal. Alabamian’s William Crawford Gorgas, Lloyd Noland and John Noble were major contributors to the project. 

“I once read a letter in a book that was written around the time the canal was being built, and one of the authors said how interesting it was that every where you went, you heard a southern accent,” said Dr. York. “Part of the rational for all those Southerners working there was that if they could take the heat and humidity at home, they surely could take it in Panama!”

Dr. York first became interested in the story of the Panama Canal when an AU instructor informed her that she was required to use primary sources, or documents, for a research paper. York decided to focus on her hometown. 

“I knew that this guy called Sibert helped build the Panama Canal, so I went to the library and found a box of his materials. I also had a friend, Billie Sibert, who told me that William Sibert was her husband’s uncle.”

Dr. York wrote her paper, which eventually turned into her master’s thesis. She currently is working on Sibert’s biography and expects to finish the work sometime next year. 

“It’s kind of out of context for a Europeanist to do something like that, but I love this man, and I want people to know that a guy from Gadsden had such an incredible career.”

Following her retirement from the Etowah County School System, Dr. York earned her masters degree from Auburn University. After pondering her career options, she decided to obtain her doctorate from AU

“I had a mid-life crisis, and instead of buying a fast car or enjoying a trip around the world, I decided to get a PhD in Early Modern European History,” she said with a laugh. “I lived there but went home on the weekends. My younger son was in college at Auburn at the time, so that was a hoot. The deal was that I had to call him before I came over!”

Dr. York twice studied abroad, performing research in London at the Lambeth Archives, the British Library and Oxford University. 

After receiving her PhD in 1999, Dr. York taught a year at Gadsden High School before teaching Western Civilization and World Religions at Wallace State-Dothan for 11 years. While Dr. York was director of the college’s Liberal Arts program, the school received grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the History Channel. 

After retiring a second time, Dr. York and her husband moved back to Etowah County last year to her grandfather’s property in Glencoe. 

“We completely renovated the house that he built in the 1930’s, and I’ve become an hippie farm girl. It’s a very bucolic lifestyle.” 

Dr. York admitted that boredom was the primary reason why she volunteered to teach in the OLLI program. 

“I liked retirement and like what I was doing, but I missed teaching and I missed the students. So I went to see [OLLI Coordinator] Randy Holland to let him know that I was back in town and that I was available, and he told me to make a list of what I wanted to teach. I’ve had non-traditional students before, and I adore them because they come with so much more life experiences. 

“Plus, they’re not in class because mama and daddy told them they have to be! Here’s my philosophy about teaching – if your students, whatever age they are, aren’t having a good time, you’re not doing your job.” 

Dr. York returns to her European roots for the fall 2012 OLLI semester, during which she will teach an overview of the Renaissance from 1350 to 1500. 

“That’s just an incredible period of time,” she said. “We’ll get into politics, art and philosophy, so it should be interesting.” 

For more information in the 2012 OLLI summer course schedule, call 256-546-286 or visit www.olli.ua.edu. 

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