On the 150th anniversary of Dr. George Petrie’s birth, April 10, I happily recall his charisma and the extraordinary interest he took in, of all people, a shy child at a crowded dinner table. Although I was just a 9-year-old boy and in the third grade, Sunday dinner with Dr. Petrie made a lasting, lifelong impression on me that I would like to share.
To set the stage, it was in the midst of World War II in the early 1940s. Sunday dinner took place after church, and since sugar, coffee, meat and new stoves were rationed, the no-frills main course consisted of chicken cooked in an ancient oven. As the youngest at the table, I always got slim pickings when the chicken was cut up and dispensed, so I perked up on this particular Sunday when Dr. Petrie, the honored guest, was asked which piece he preferred. To my astonishment, and indeed to the amazement of the entire table, he announced his preference for the gizzard! My parents demurred, but he insisted that he was not being polite, that the gizzard indeed was his favorite piece of chicken. I, of course, particularly appreciated his eccentric choice since it opened up the remote possibility of a better selection of chicken for someone last in the chow line.
When we had guests for dinner my parents had the general rule that children should be seen and not heard, and most guests certainly shared this custom. Indeed, if a guest took any notice of me, it was usually to remark, inanely, “My, how you’ve grown!”
But on this long-ago Sunday, in a lull in the dinner table chatter, Dr. Petrie turned his keen gaze my way and, to my surprise, broke with convention by speaking to me. He addressed me as if I actually had some intelligence and, most amazing of all, seemed really interested in what I had to say.
What he asked me, simply, was what I had been reading lately! But what a question to ask a child in that era! What a question to ask a child even today! I was very flattered; it seemed to me that I was being singled out and treated like a grownup.
And I did, very timidly, respond. I told him that I very much wanted to begin reading some Sherlock Holmes stories, but I had tackled first The Sign of the Four and was finding it really, really hard going. “Ah yes,” he said, and promptly recommended that I begin instead with The Hound of the Baskervilles, which he declared to be his own favorite Sherlock Holmes story. He said I would like that much better. And when I took his advice the next day, I agreed.
It is difficult to explain today why this seemingly insignificant incident proved to be so very significant to me, but on that long ago Sunday I fell completely under Dr. Petrie’s spell. And I would argue that my childhood experience testifies to an aspect of that gentleman’s important legacy to Auburn.
And what a legacy to our college Dr. Petrie bequeathed, from football to the Auburn Creed!
What I would emphasize would be his personal magnetism, his appeal to young minds and his drawing power: the qualities that somehow enabled him to recruit in a small, poorly funded college largely devoted to engineering and agriculture, what one important study of Southern history has described as “The Auburn Oasis,” a fertile spot in an intellectual desert. Under Dr. Petrie’s personal direction, Auburn turned out, particularly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, young men (and women!) who did important, often groundbreaking research in the primary resources of the Southern region.
Even today, an elderly historian can look back through the years and recall with affection and nostalgia a boy’s elation at discussing Sherlock Holmes with his newfound idol, Professor George Petrie, over his chicken gizzard and my chicken backbone, on a Sunday dinner in an Auburn of long ago.