Dr. James X. Corgan, Emeritus Professor of Geology at Austin Peay State University (APSU), has been seriously ill since October 2011. The exact nature of his illness is unknown to me at this time, but it has been serious enough to require significant time in the hospital, time in a nursing home, and time in the intensive care unit (ICU). The last news I had from a few weeks ago stated that he was in the ICU at a Nashville area hospital and continuing his fight against this apparently life-threatening ailment. I would like to take this opportunity to ask all of you Archaeology in Tennessee readers to pause for a moment and pray for Jim Corgan and his complete recovery from this illness. He has been a friend to the geological and archaeological communities in Tennessee for many years. Jim has continued his research in invertebrate paleontology, marine malacology, and other areas of geological interest during his retirement years. We do not want to lose him.
Jim Corgan is one of my oldest and dearest friends. We first met in 1971 when I arrived as a skinny and frightened freshman on the doorstep of the Ziegler Building at APSU. This is the building that housed the combined geography and geology programs. At that time, Jim was the Chairman of Geology for the program, and I had enrolled for my first geology class. I knew virtually nothing about universities or professors. Tales had crossed my ears about professors being socially distant from students and concerned only about their line of research. Some had warned that I should not expect them to be anything like my high school teachers because college is a different sort of academic aquarium. The real concern on the back burner of my mind was the possibility of encountering that legend known as the “two-bit bastard” professor. So, there I sat in my first geology classroom on that dreaded first day, waiting to see what sort of professor would walk through the door. Then he entered. He had thinning dark hair with some gray, black glasses, a navy blue polyester suit, a really nice tie, and a pair of gray suede Hushpuppies that blended better with the suit than one might imagine. Jim introduced himself to the class in his unique way, and I knew immediately that I had found both a teacher and a friend for life. He was good-natured, he was an excellent teacher, he cared very deeply for his students and their career paths, and he was truly great in his research endeavors.
Jim was the first person to ever call me “Mr. Brown.” He did that with all of his students in those days. It was his way of saying, “You are grown up now. I respect that fact. You can be okay with it too.” My favorite Jim Corgan saying in those days was, “Uh-hm, uh-hm, uh-hm.” It was the natural sound he made while taking in new information and analyzing a problem. One of his funniest lines during a lecture was, “Then one unfortunate Thursday afternoon in the Permian Period…” I did not think about that much at the time, but 42 years later, it has become clear to me that if something is going to go wrong in life and smack the wall, it most often happens on a Thursday—especially if it has anything to do with work for pay.
Jim also introduced us to his lovely bride Dorothy when she showed up to take geology courses with us at APSU. She was a kind and gentle person who taught Sunday school at the local Roman Catholic Church in Clarksville, Tennessee. Jim sometimes took over as her substitute teacher on Sundays. The Christian fundamentalist and conservative evangelical students in his historical geology classes at APSU were peeved no end to learn that Dr. Corgan was not the Godless, shrill, monocle-wearing, goateed geology professor portrayed in the Chick tracts. Sadly, Dorothy passed away from cancer a number of years ago.
Jim Corgan came to us from New York via the oil fields. He earned his B.S. degree at New York University, his M.S. degree at Columbia University, and his Ph.D. in geology at Louisiana State University. His primary interests were invertebrate paleontology, vertebrate paleontology, and marine malacology. He put his invertebrate paleontology to work in the oil industry for many years. I am not aware of his past oil adventures in any detail except to say that he did work for the old Sinclair Oil Company when they still had the dinosaur as their logo. Some of you just said, “What?” Never mind. It was long before your time, and that particular dinosaur was a vegetarian.
For reasons only Jim could explain, he eventually left the oil business to teach geology at APSU. In those days, Jim believed in university education to be sure, but he also believed that those who had put their academic knowledge to the test in the real world of corporate work first, rather than just sticking to a purely insular academic track, had a distinct advantage in teaching and research. Because I have taken the same course in my work life, I thoroughly agree with that point of view.
Jim Corgan took me under his wing and nurtured me throughout my time at APSU, and I will be forever grateful for his kindness and the trust he put in me. I earned straight “As” in all of my geology courses, and while only a sophomore, he designated me as Laboratory Assistant for the department, which is now a paid academic position at APSU. However, he knew I was interested more in archaeology than geology, and he was kind enough to respect that fact and encourage my interest in archaeology, even though APSU had no program in anthropology. He even loaned me the only archaeology book on his shelf, a detailed field archaeology manual written by British archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon. In addition, at that time, Jim was interested in the intersection between marine malacology and archaeology, particularly with regard to ancient shell use at Cahokia. He had acquired a good-sized collection of excavated marine shells and shell fragments from Cahokia, and included me in a proposed research project related to these shells. Unfortunately, the National Science Foundation did not make an award for the proposal, perhaps because it did not want to foot the bill for a special microscope that we needed.
Jim was always heavily into the affairs of the Tennessee Academy of Science during my time at APSU and continued that involvement for decades. One of his main interests was the history of the academy and the history of geology in Tennessee, which spawned a number of publications. Just in case some of you are not aware of it, the early journals of the Tennessee Academy of Science are loaded with assorted articles on Tennessee antiquities and the natural history of Tennessee.
The professional archaeological community in Tennessee got to know Jim through the following well-known publication:
1996 Corgan, James X. and Emanuel Breitburg. Tennessee’s Prehistoric Vertebrates. Tennessee Division of Geology, Bulletin 84, Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, Division of Geology, Nashville.
Those are just a few of my many happy recollections about the intersection of my life and the life of Jim Corgan. I have no sad recollections other than his current medical condition. If you kind readers, all the way from from Alaska to India, would please say prayers for Jim Corgan, his recent bride Elnor, and their families, it would be much appreciated. Thank you.