Historian awarded for teaching and service

By Katelynn Watkins – kwatkins@unca.edu – Staff Writer | Feb. 18, 2015 |

There’s always a certain amount of satisfaction in winning an award for doing something well. What about winning an award for leading a helpful and selfless life in academia?

“I’m greatly honored,” said Gordon McKinney, this year’s winner of the Outstanding Achievement Award.

The distinction, bestowed by the Western North Carolina Historical Association, is awarded to educators on the basis of contributions to preservation of Western North Carolina history as well as service-oriented activity throughout the duration of a career.

After earning a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University in 1971, McKinney taught Appalachian and American history at Valdosta State University, Western Carolina University, the University of Maryland, and Berea College in Kentucky.

“Personal service was a key factor in the decision process,” he said, “but even more so was that I taught service-learning courses throughout my career.”

While at Berea College, one of McKinney’s classes was instrumental in governmental and social change in a neighboring county. Just before the start of a semester, a local politician approached him with a class project, he said.

“A nearby county’s residents were being cheated because outsiders owned the land and weren’t doing much with it,” McKinney recalled. “There were political implications to this man proposing a land development plan, given his upcoming re-election plans, so he asked if we would be willing to do some research and propose the plan ourselves with our findings.”

Ten weeks of research, a group of final papers presented in town hall, and six months later, he said, a land development plan was created and implemented to protect the rights and quality of life in a small county in Kentucky.

“And the man won his re-election,” McKinney said.

Among other findings, the students were able to reveal 54 percent of the land was owned by outside entities, McKinney said, the majority of which were held by the federal government, heirs to the land who lived out of the state, and a mining company. To cap it all, one of the farms was no longer producing anything but housing waste from the city of Cincinnati.

As part of UNC Asheville’s growing curriculum, more service-learning is inserted into classes across departments than ever before, said Katie Pindell, student coordinator of the Key Center.

“It is growing significantly on our campus, the number of service-learning designated courses every semester,” she said, “as is the number of applicants to our Community Engaged Scholar Program.”

The program is a graduation distinction, she said, one that any student can earn while at UNCA, regardless of major.

“If students stay inside the four walls of a classroom for their entire time here,” Pindell said, “they are wasting their money.”

Service-learning instills a certain level of reciprocal understanding, Pindell said, an experience that is invaluable in the development of critical thinking for students about to enter the workforce. It’s also a matter of encouraging community development, a skill McKinney has carried with him beyond his career in education and outreach.

McKinney worked with WNCHA for many years after retirement from university instruction, serving as a member of the board and the program committee to educate and promote historical observation of the Appalachian area. He served as executive director of the National History Day committee and administrator of the research division of the National Endowment of the Humanities.

McKinney received the nomination for the award from Catherine Frank, executive director of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute on UNCA’s campus, where he still teaches and advocates for its Appalachian Studies program.

In her public statement announcing the award in January, Frank said McKinney worked to expand the scope of Appalachian studies beyond the academic setting. His projects have always included people of many professional and personal backgrounds, she said, creating a much more inclusive and holistic approach to discovering the Appalachian ways of life.

“I’ve always loved this area,” McKinney said. “Part of what I’ve wanted to do was educate others on the real ways people in the mountains live, not the stereotypes that tend to persist among those who have never spent a sufficient amount of their time here.”

McKinney receives his reward for a full career of service and instruction at a public ceremony and reception at the Reuter Center Feb. 28 at 2 p.m.

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