|
|
Examiner
  • Paul Nagel gave us better understanding of history

  • Paul C. Nagel, perhaps our community’s most eminent author, died this month in what he said with certain aplomb would be “the last chapter.”

    • email print
  • Paul C. Nagel, perhaps our community’s most eminent author, died this month in what he said with certain aplomb would be “the last chapter.”
    And there had been so many chapters.
    Nagel, who grew up in Independence, loved to tell stories – about himself, about his community, about his country – and he did so with great verve and vigor.
    He graduated from William Chrisman High School – the original high school on Lexington – and his remaining classmates and friends remember him fondly as a sickly boy (held out of school for a year) who grew into a lanky young man with keen intelligence and who was a skilled debater.
    The larger world of letters remembers him as one our nation’s most distinguished historians.
    David McCullough, fellow author and friend, in a recent Minneapolis Star-Tribune feature story about Nagel’s life commented: “Paul was a first-rate historian, first-rate teacher and first-rate human being.”
    “He had a modest, but confident, sure hand in his work and in the way he proceeded through life,” said McCullough, whose Pulitzer-prize winning biographies of Harry Truman and John Adams were a shared interest. “He was level in all circumstances – academic, personal and in the dark turbulence of the world we live in.”
    Nagel wrote about America – the distinguished Adams family (the two presidents and the amazing women), the Lees of Virginia (Revolutionary War patriots and generals) and the life of Missouri artist George Caleb Bingham.
    It could have been different.
    He initially went to the University of Minnesota, shortly after World War II, to study mortuary science, having worked at Independence funeral homes as a teenager. He quickly changed to a history major upon discovering college co-eds found his initial field of interest offputting.
    As a historian, Nagel brought the past alive through nearly a dozen books over a 40-year writing career that included stints as vice president for academic affairs at the University of Missouri and as director of the Virginia Historical Society.
    When the nation celebrated its bicentennial in 1976, a series of short, readable state histories were written by distinguished American historians. Nagel wrote Missouri’s.
    Nagel freely confessed, in his preface to “Missouri: A History,” some lingering doubts about the assignment: “I am the first to confess that Missouri is difficult to understand.”
    As he explained: “Unfortunately, Missouri reveals little about herself that is not varied, confusing and contradictory. Her story is as often disillusioning as it is inspiring, for her relationship to the Union has been a mixture of triumph, despair and embarrassment.”
    Editors this spring were encouraging Nagel to revise and update the state history. Given another 35 years of events, would Missouri’s story be any clearer, less confusing or easier to understand? One would see.
    Page 2 of 3 - Shortly after agreeing to the task, Nagel learned he had advanced pancreatic cancer.
    Nagel delighted in his German family heritage, readily apparent in his very personal book: “The German Migration to Missouri: My Family’s Story.”
    In it, Nagel combines the skill of a genealogist with that of a historian to tell a quintessential American immigrant story – that of his own family (the Nagels, the Groenemanns, the Sabrowskys and the Blanks) – and their unremarkable but interesting lives, much like our own.
    His family were early Missouri settlers, favoring the rolling hills around Hermann and Augusta, which reminded them of the homeland left behind. The family gradually moved west to Lafayette and Jackson counties.
    In the last chapters, Nagel shares stories of life in Independence – growing up in the Great Depression, the family farm off now U.S. 40, the family ministers who served often German-speaking congregations and living in his grandparent’s house on Short Street.
    I worked on the book, reading the manuscript and writing a brief introduction. Reflecting on Nagel’s multi-generational family story, I wrote:
    “This family story shows the kind of influences that people have on each other, particularly through the intense relationships possible inside the family: love, nurture, understanding, support, encouragement and a sense of self. ... He traces the separate histories of four families that are his genetic inheritance, but he appears only as a minor character in his own tale. This kind of restraint is all too rare in later generations, including my own.”
    Nagel became part of the families he wrote about.
    He was “an honorary member” of the perhaps America’s most distinguished family – the Adams family of Massachusetts. Last fall, the living descendants honored Nagel with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Adams Institute.
    On that occasion, family member Henry Adams – former art curator at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art – shared his family’s fond regard for Nagel despite his recounting the family’s trials and tribulations, including alcoholism, suicide, self-doubt and familial disappointment in his multi-generational biography “Descent from Glory: Four Generations of the John Adams Family.”
    Henry Adams commented that Nagel’s books “provide the deepest of moral lessons: they show that human achievements are not easy, that there’s no such thing as a life without suffering and struggle.”
    Any day with Paul was a delight.
    It mattered not the occasion: a walk around the Independence Square, driving around Missouri on a Bingham book tour, a bowl of Blue Bunny ice cream, dinner at our house with guests or attending one of his public talks.
    Our last day spent with Paul – spent in Minneapolis – was no different.
    Paul smiled, quipped and shared stories of personages and events large and incidents ever so small. His son Eric was present and had spent weeks helping his father go through papers, pictures and tend to personal matters because, as Paul had noted, “it warms the old Germanic heart to be orderly.”
    Page 3 of 3 - He shared some personal items he thought should find their way back to Independence.
    Among them was a Victorian-era glass covered illustration. It had hung on the wall of Nagel’s Missouri relatives and been passed down through generations.
    It is a pastoral scene: a river courses past a stand of tall trees serving as the backdrop. There are seven illustrated German words that are kindly translated on the back: “Be joyful in hope, steadfast in distress.”
    We will hang it in our home, as a reminder and a remembrance.
    Paul Nagel, 85, died May 22 in an Edina, Minn., hospice.
     

        calendar