BLOOMINGTON — After 47 years of teaching at Illinois Wesleyan University, history professor emeritus Paul Bushnell is looking forward to traveling, getting more exercise and reading books he doesn’t “have to” read.
But his immediate project is clearing books from his office.
“There’s got to be over 1,000 here,” Bushnell said as he glanced around at mostly full shelves and boxes. “I’ve got to be out of the office by the end of July.”
It’s a daunting task, but the 83-year-old isn’t known for shying from challenges.
As a graduate student at Vanderbilt University in the early 1960s, he was involved in sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in Nashville, Tenn. He was present at the founding of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in North Carolina, where he met the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
“That intensive experience at the beginning of the movement was very educational for me,” said Bushnell, who launched a black history class at IWU in 1968, before such courses were common.
He also was involved in the Bloomington-Normal Black History Project.
IWU history professor Mike Young said it will be difficult to replace Bushnell, who started as a specialist in European history, then moved to U.S. history, particularly 19th century America, slavery and civil rights.
“How many people would it take to cover all those bases?” Young asked, saying Bushnell “revolutionized the curriculum” at IWU and has been “so good at talking to students and establishing a rapport with them.”
Elizabeth Robb, chief circuit judge of McLean County, is a graduate of the American studies program created by Bushnell and English professor Robert Bray. She described Bushnell as “a treasure for the university” who continues to have “a deep, genuine interest in his students” — past and present.
“The thing that impressed me about him is he truly loved history,” Robb said, and his excitement rubbed off on his students.
“With Paul, it was more than just studying history,” she said. “He lived it, especially with his involvement in the civil rights movement. He explained how movements like that change history.”
Bushnell has always kept a couple of cotton bolls on his desk as “a reminder of the kind of manual labor we don’t know.”
“My kids detasseled corn. I encouraged it,” said Bushnell, a father of four. His wife, Dorothy, owns The Garlic Press in Normal.
Getting a good education for his children was among the reasons he moved to Illinois, but not the only one.
“I thought IWU had real prospects to become a fine institution,” Bushnell said. “It’s been gratifying to see that happen.”