In Memoriam W. Calvin Dickinson

The Tennessee Historical Commission was saddened by the recent passing of former member Dr. Calvin Dickinson of Cookeville. A member of the Commission from 2005 to 2016, he served as Chair of the Monuments and Markers Committee.

Dr. Dickinson’s Tennessee Tech colleague and friend Dr. Michael Birdwell, who serves as Chair of the THC’s State Review Board, penned the following tribute. 

Eternally youthful in attitude, infinitely curious about many things, and gracious to a fault, Dr. William Calvin Dickinson died peacefully at his home on August 30–almost four months to the day after his wife Charlene shuffled off this mortal coil.  The two of them lived life to the fullest; they loved to travel and to entertain. 

Born on March 30, 1938, and raised in Atlanta, Texas, Calvin graduated with his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Baylor and completed his doctorate at UNC Chapel Hill.  He began his academic career as a scholar of English History and published his first book (based on his dissertation) on the career of Sidney Godolphin, the first Lord of the Treasury– and arguably the first Prime Minister of England– in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.  He initially taught at Chowan College before moving to Cookeville in 1973.

At Tech Calvin earned a reputation as a beloved lecturer, gifted scholar and mentor to his students.  He earned the Outstanding Teaching Award among many other honors.  Researching English history at Tech proved more difficult as the years passed and Calvin turned his attention to local history.  Together with Homer Kemp of the English Department, they created the Upper Cumberland Institute to conduct research into the history and culture of the plateau region of Kentucky and Tennessee.  The Institute provided resources for continued research and offered students the opportunity to work on a variety of projects, including architectural surveys of the region, interpretive material for state parks and local museums, and much more.  Dickinson and Kemp worked together to add materials to enrich the TTU Archives.  They produced a book based on the architectural surveys for the Tennessee Historical Commission entitled Upper Cumberland Historic Architecture.

As a scholar Calvin published dozens of articles and books.  In addition to his biography of Godolphin, Calvin wrote the history of Cumberland and Morgan counties in Tennessee.  He and Dr. Larry Whiteaker published two anthologies devoted to Tennessee history, a volume on the Upper Cumberland entitled Lend an Ear: Heritage of the Tennessee Upper Cumberland and a book about the Civil War correspondence of Cornelius Tenure.  Dickinson, Whiteaker and Dr. Kent Dollar published two books dedicated to the Civil War in Kentucky and Tennessee.  With Eloise Hitchcock, Calvin published two book-length bibliographies; one devoted to the history of Tennessee and the other concerning the War of Spanish Succession.  He worked with Jennie Ivey on two volumes of Tennessee history targeted at high school students and developed pedagogical tools to accompany them.  Dickinson and Dr. Michael Birdwell edited two anthologies about the Upper Cumberland region (and had plans to write two more books on the region before his unexpected passing).  Both of those books included scholarship by former students.  One of Calvin’s last books was an investigation of the Walton Road, one of the oldest east-west thoroughfares in Tennessee.  His interest in public history led Governor Phil Bredesen to appoint Calvin to the Tennessee Historical Commission where he lent his expertise to statewide historic appreciation and preservation.

Dr. Dickinson was dedicated to the Cookeville community and supported local arts, the Bryan Symphony Orchestra, WCTE-TV, and was a founding member of the Friends of White Plains.  He believed in community service and was an exemplar Rotarian, past president of that organization and a multiple Paul Harris Fellow.  A faithful member of the Cookeville United Methodist Church, he enjoyed singing in the choir.

Calvin had a tremendous sense of humor and an infectious hearty laugh.  He liked trekking through the Upper Cumberland “in search of history.”  On numerous occasions he remarked, “Hey fellas, I wonder where this road goes.”  More than once the roads were dead ends, but that did not matter.  It was the company of friends and sense of adventure that amused him.  Travel on my friend.