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Celebrated UK historian Terry Birdwhistell passes away

UK Public Relations and Marketing

Kentuckians are mourning the loss of one of the country's preeminent oral historians — former Dean of University of Kentucky Libraries, Terry Birdwhistell.

The man Charles T. Wethington, UK’s 10th president, dubbed "Mr. Oral History" was a Kentucky native who rose through the leadership ranks at UK Libraries and found himself on the other side of the microphone from nearly 1,000 interviewees. They included Kentucky governors, senators, UK presidents, and even Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

Birdwhistell described that meeting for the John Sherman Cooper Oral History Project on the Wisdom Project Podcast.

"I knock on the door, the door opens, and it's Jackie Kennedy Onassis, opening the door — with her doorman standing behind her going, 'Oh gosh.' But that's the way it was. This was a very personal thing for her. It wasn't like a journalist coming to interview her. This was somebody coming to talk to her about her friend, John Sherman Cooper," Birdwhistell recalls. "So from the moment she opened the door it was personal."

With an ability to listen and put those he interviewed at ease, Birdwhistell became the guardian of a 50-year treasure trove of oral histories, not to mention the author or coauthor of 15 books — contributing to archives on race relations and women's history at UK. That latter subject was the topic of Our Rightful Place: A History of Women at the University of Kentucky, 1880—1945. He spoke to WUKY about his interest in the subject.  

"I think the main thing to keep looking at is making sure that women on the campus today have equal opportunity," he said.

While he kept his eye on those making headlines at UK, Birdwhistell also wanted to preserve the voices of everyday Kentuckians — even toward the end of his tenure discussing on the Behind the Blue podcast how to document the pandemic and its effect on UK.

"I think students of UK history and Kentucky history 100 years from now will find that fascinating, and if we can capture those voices and save the voices, that would be terrific," he said.

Birdwhistell passed away on Sunday following a brief illness. He was 72. A celebration of his life will be held at UK at a later date.

Josh James fell in love with college radio at Western Kentucky University's student station, New Rock 92 (now Revolution 91.7). After working as a DJ and program director, he knew he wanted to come home to Lexington and try his hand in public radio.