Flipping through the latest issue of my University of Central Florida alum magazine, I was surprised to see a small notice that Jerrell Shofner had died. When a UCF history major back in the early 1990’s, I had thoroughly enjoyed Dr. Shoffner’s Florida History class. He was one of those professors who presented history with contagious enthusiasm, like a master storyteller. In addition to teaching at UCF, Shofner published 16 books and served as president of the Florida Historical Society. He was gracious and polite in the classroom, but a demanding instructor, and I know many students found his class challenging. Shofner’s obituary in the Orlando Sentinel includes this quote from a former colleague, “He did not suffer fools lightly.” True, but he also recognized and encouraged sincere effort. Although he often returned essay exams with stern lectures lamenting some of the more dismal results, one day as he handed me my exam he smiled and said, “I so enjoy reading what you write!” It was an encouragement I needed and cherished.
I loved studying History at UCF and attended graduate school on scholarship in another state. Sadly, my graduate school experience was not a happy one and I left after one year. Although there are a multitude of reasons I abandoned my studies, one is that I found a much less compelling approach to history in my new environment. Trying to interpret everything that ever happened anywhere and at any time in terms of class warfare is not only tedious, but a denial of the nature of humanity. I learned that many modern historians have discarded the “story” element in favor of a dry, materialist, and cynical science. What’s compelling about that?
Dr. Shofner, along with instructors like Thomas Greenhaw, John Evans, and E. B. Fetscher, made studying history at UCF a great experience, and I remember those years with fondness. I did not have knowledge of their personal beliefs, but my memory is that they presented history as a compelling story: neither overly heroic nor overly dismal, but one that reflects the complexity of what it means to be human. For this I am ever grateful.
R.I.P. Jerrell Shofner, and thanks for sharing your love of history with so many.